Monday, July 04, 2011

Leather History Meeting Relives the Wounds of AIDS

The Crisis Dominates the Reminiscences of Four Local Leatherfolk


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Wendy Sue Biegeleisen, Mark Holmes, Wayne Dietz, Luke Owens

The San Diego League of Gentlemen (SD-LOG) meeting July 1 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest was advertised as a Leather history panel, but the most intense memories the three men and one women on the panel had to offer were from the AIDS crisis of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Co-sponsored by SD-LOG and the San Diego Leather History Project, and moderated by Leather History Project facilitator Caryl — who brought extensive scrapbooks of San Diego Leather history that were displayed on tables throughout the event — the panel featured Lesbian activist, longtime Leather community organizer and former Pride official Wendy Sue Biegeleisen; Mark Holmes, Mr. San Diego Leather 1984 and founder of the first leather goods store in San Diego specifically servicing the Leather/BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadomasochism) community; Luke Owens, former staff member of Update and contributor to The Leather Journal; and former Imperial Court Empress and Emperor and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence member (as “Chlamydia Burns”) Wayne Dietz.

Though the panelists addressed other issues, including the changing nature of the bar scene in San Diego and their backgrounds in the military (all three male panelists were veterans; Holmes served in the Air Force and Owens and Dietz in the Navy), the discussion kept coming back to AIDS. When they weren’t talking about how it had traumatized them personally — Holmes was diagnosed with AIDS in 1991 and nearly died from it five years later, and Owens vividly recalled being the staff member at Update who had to type all the obituaries that ran in every issue of the paper at the height of the death toll (that was “one of the hardest times of my life,” he said) — they were talking about its impact on the community and it changed the mores of the Leather scene.

Wendy Sue discussed how AIDS affected her; she became a caregiver for many people with AIDS, had to fight doctors and other medical personnel to get them decent treatment, and was also part of the generation of Lesbians that had to step into leadership positions in the Queer community because so many of its men were dying or desperately ill. “I was a caregiver for people with AIDS, and I saw them treated horribly,” she recalled. “Doctors and nurses would come into their rooms in full scrubs and masks, or just leave their meals at the door. I’d been near Gay men since I was 15, and I would eat off the same trays as my friends. Many men died in my arms. I consider myself a survivor of the AIDS crisis.”

Though she became an AIDS activist — Wendy Sue was one of the original founders of ACT UP San Diego and was present at the creation of several other AIDS organizations — it took its toll on her personally. “I’ve tended to isolate,” she said. “I don’t remember people’s names. I stopped going to funerals when I was going to one or two a week. I share this with the younger people in the room because I would not wish this on anyone, and I hope the younger folk here hear our life stories and pass on to other folk how important it is to value our lives in a society that trashes our lives at every turn.”

“AIDS has killed more people than all of America’s wars, and in the first few years no one was paying attention,” said Holmes. “No one [in the mainstream media] talked about it at all until Newsweek in 1983.” After a decade in San Diego Holmes had moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career — “I was one of the pirates in Hook,” he recalled — only he got diagnosed with AIDS in 1991, shortly after he relocated. In 1995, he said, he “moved back to San Diego to die. Fortunately, protease inhibitors came out in time to save me, though not in time for a lot of my friends.”

Holmes said he met Wendy Sue in the early 1980’s, when he was given the business of selling leather goods inside the Loading Zone, then San Diego’s only Leather bar. He didn’t know the first thing about how to sew. Fortunately, she did. The business grew into a free-standing leather store called Hard Labor Leather, located on Washington Street in Hillcrest where Ashley Medical is now. Unfortunately, the source of Wendy’s sewing knowledge was her training in theatre designs and costumes — which put her at ground zero for the AIDS crisis. “The first person I knew who died of AIDS passed away in 1982,” she recalled. “By 1987 I had lost 60 friends and I had to stop counting. … I had a lot of friends in the theatre, and that’s how I knew so many people who passed away.”

Wendy Sue boasted that she was one of the first Lesbian activists to warn her community that AIDS wasn’t just a Gay male problem; that her people needed to deal with it, too. As a founding member of S.D. LINK (San Diego Lesbians in Kink) and San Diego LASH (Leather and Sisterhood), she said, “I was the first Leather dyke to volunteer at the Center and one of the first people who said Lesbians needed to practice safer sex, too.” Wendy Sue came to the cause from her personal experience. “I was with a woman from 1984 to 1986, and one year after we broke up I got a call from her in which she said, ‘While we were together, I was shooting up and sharing needles with Gay men,’” she recalled. “In 1987 I tested, and by the grace of the Goddess I tested negative. I don’t know where she is or what she’s up to, but that’s what motivated me to talk to women and say, ‘You don’t know where your partner’s been or where your partner’s partners have been.’ Since then I’ve treated every woman I’ve had sex with as if we were both positive.”

“AIDS certainly has to be the defining moment of my Gay life,” said Dietz. “It changed everything for many of us.” Curiously, like a lot of other Gay men of his generation who have survived, Dietz doesn’t regard the impact of AIDS on the community as entirely negative. “When we interact with each other now, it’s with a lot more honesty and we intermingle a lot more,” he said. “We’re all in this together and we all share in the benefits from when we work together collectively. We don’t have dueling benefits anymore (two fundraisers in different bars the same night). Since 1999-2000 we’ve become more of a community, and San Diego is now being noticed because it’s a strong [Leather] community. We’ve grown a lot in 20 years.”

Though it nearly killed him personally and did kill many of his friends, Holmes also sees a silver lining in the dark cloud of AIDS. “AIDS not only brought us together, it made us human for the first time instead of those ‘others’ out there,” he said. “That has made the most difference in bringing about the progress that has ended ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and created the possibility that we will be allowed to marry nationwide.” According to Holmes, AIDS forever changed mainstream America’s perception of the Queer community as made up of people who loved, felt pain and suffered loss instead of just cruising each other and having casual sex. As a result, he said, “In 50 years a Gay Pride parade will be no more looked down upon than a St. Patrick’s Day parade.”

“In 1977 a lot of men would walk into a bar and walk out with a complete stranger,” said Owens. “Since AIDS hit, a lot of men have been willing to take more time, form a lasting relationship and build more of an emotional tie between couples. I hate condoms but I still use them, and for someone who’s been sexually active since 1977, I’m still negative — and I consider that a miracle.” Owens also thanked Lesbians for stepping up to the plate and keeping the community going as AIDS was killing off so many highly active and visible Gay men. “It was because of the Lesbian community and people like Wendy and [veteran Leather activist] Jo Blas that a lot of us didn’t die and are here now,” he said.

“It was clear to us by 1983 that this was happening from anal sex, fisting and mixing the two,” said Holmes. “Before the Centers for Disease Control and the American Medical Association got involved, we were putting up safer-sex posters. I put one up at my spot at the Loading Zone, and the owners ripped it down and tore it up because it was a sexual arena.”

Dietz remembered those years at the Loading Zone and the casual sex scene. “It was a much freer time — and I was much younger,” he said. “You could be at the Loading Zone, go home after 20 minutes and then come back. … I remember a much hotter, more sexually charged time.” Dietz said he dropped out of the bar scene in 1984 when he became part of a couple, then returned to the community after his partner died in 1994. Dietz 2.0 was much less of a bar cruiser and more of a community activist than Dietz 1.0; he got heavily involved in the Imperial Court and co-founded Bears San Diego, though he still feels more comfortable with the Leather community than anywhere else.

Confronting Law Enforcement

Though AIDS was the topic the panelists kept returning to, other issues were raised, including the often hostile attitude of local law enforcement towards the Leather community in general and Leather bars in particular. Wendy Sue recalled her experiences working at the Club, which at the time was “the Lesbian bar” in San Diego. “It attracted interesting women, women who liked motorcycles, and that brought women together in the BDSM scene,” she said. Unfortunately, the Club also attracted a lot of unwanted attention both from the San Diego Police Department and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board.

“The Vice Squad was trying to close it down,” Wendy Sue recalled. “I’d been working there for two months when two police officers came in in their polyester suits. When I asked for ID, they said they were police officers. When I asked to see their badges, they told me to step outside and said I would be arrested if I kept asking them for ID. They went into the bar, turned on all the lights, shut off the music and watched the bartenders as they poured drinks. They were looking for any violation of the state alcohol law they could use as an excuse to shut the Club down, but they didn’t find anything. That happened in a lot of the bars back then.” ABC eventually did close the Club in 1984 and its owners turned it into a men’s bar called BULC — where, thanks to her friendship with Mark Holmes, Wendy was one of the few women welcome.

Wendy Sue also mentioned a more recent event that had a quite different outcome: the arrest of the San Diego Six in October 1999. Club X sponsored a private play party Hallowe’en weekend and a squad of police officers from the vice unit raided it and arrested six attendees for the crimes of “public nudity” and/or “lewd conduct in public.” Rallying to their defense, Club X raised $20,000 for legal expenses and brought in attorney Andy Zmurkiewicz, who represented five of the six defendants and handled the first court trial. After the first defendant was acquitted — and the foreman of the jury told the prosecutor the trial was a “waste of time” and never should have taken place — all charges against the other five were dropped.

“That turned around the police and the vice community,” said Wendy Sue. “It changed how we as a BDSM/Leather community were seen. That started communication between law enforcement and the kink community. It was unfortunate that six Club X members were arrested — including three women with red hair, because one of the cops said, ‘Get the one with red hair.’” Wendy Sue recalled that the Club X members who testified were able to establish that, even though the play party was in a technically “public” venue, admission was restricted to people who bought tickets in advance and both the building itself and its parking lot were so remote there was no chance anyone not wanting to be at the event could have stumbled into it. “That was a really transitional event for us in our community,” Wendy Sue said.

“That was the point,” Holmes added, “at which this community put its foot down and started saying, ‘This is not domestic violence. This is consensual S/M. This is something we’re doing for fun and excitement.’ We started educating the law enforcement community.”

Coming Out Into Leather

Other topics covered included the effect of the Internet on the Leather community, the old-guard concept of “earning your leathers,” and the different ways men and women come to an awareness of their Leather identity and interest in BDSM sex. While the three men on the panel emphasized the importance of their military backgrounds and the bars as the arena in which they came out, Wendy Sue described a somewhat more complicated process by which women became Leatherpeople. While some Leatherwomen, like many Leathermen, came out of motorcycle clubs, Wendy Sue said a lot of women got into Leather and BDSM as a result of the Lesbian feminist movement of the 1970’s.

“There was a gathering of women in 1978-79 and they created Califia,” Wendy Sue recalled. “They got some land out in the boonies and were doing a lot of meeting and consciousness-raising. Out of Califia came a group of Lesbians interested in exploring about sexuality, that had a closed group doing a lot of dialogue and exploring BDSM. That opened up in 1981-82” and, she added, set the stage for groups like San Diego LINK and San Diego LASH which she was involved with in 1984-86.

Wendy Sue also mentioned another 1980’s institution that helped Lesbians explore their sexuality and got many of them interested in Leather and kink: women’s musical festivals. “I put together a scrapbook from 1984-86 that includes pictures from the West Coast Women’s Music Festival, at which the group Leather and Lace did workshops and the organizers allowed a BDSM area,” she said. “That has been part of a number of women’s music festivals and part of our herstory, which is different from that of the men’s community.”

Though Caryl had announced at the beginning of the panel that she didn’t want to spark a debate about the so-called “old guard” of the Leather community versus younger members less versed in — and sometimes simply less interested in — older Leather traditions, she cracked the door open on that topic when she asked Owens about a comment he’d made earlier about “earning your leathers.” Owens, who said he’d entered the Leather community in the first place as an “owned slave,” said, “I was not allowed to wear anything [leather] except boots and a belt until my Master said I could get a vest and chaps.”

Holmes said he couldn’t recall any tradition that you had to “earn your leathers” and said he’d have to ask people who came out during the 1960’s — before he did — about that. Wendy Sue recalled the Leatherwomen’s group Leather and Lace and its elaborate initiation ceremony. ‘You had to go to a certain number of meetings, be sponsored by two members of the group and do a certain number of volunteer hours before you could go to a play party,” she said. “The excitement of initiation dates back to the Navy and to biker clubs.” She added that she never actually “earned” any leathers except for a wristband Holmes gave her. “I didn’t have to do anything for it,” she said, “ but because it came from Mark, it represented acceptance from a Leatherman, a Leather Master and the Leathermen’s community in general.”

“The two worst things that happened to the Leather community,” Owens said, “were the sexual revolution and The Leatherman’s Handbook” — the pioneering how-to manual (later in two volumes and innumerable editions) by author and long-standing Leather advice columnist Larry Townsend. Originally published in 1972 and frequently reissued — the last edition came out just months before Townsend’s death in July 2008, shortly after he made a rare public appearance at a Titleholder’s Appreciation Dinner as part of San Diego Leather Pride — The Leatherman’s Handbook, according to Owens, “didn’t mention anything about earning your leathers or living the lifestyle. It presented Leather as pure fantasy.”

The Net and the Future

Regarding the Internet — which some Leatherpeople have said has led to the closure of many Leather bars and organizations because it gives people a quicker and supposedly easier way to meet and hook up — Holmes said, “You get out of the Internet what you want. I’ve met some of my very best friends there. I’d get to know them online for six to eight years and then I’d meet them face to face and I’d find them exactly how I’d got to know them on the Net. You can get sex, friendship and brotherhood online. You can use it for something quick and tawdry, or you can use it to get to know somebody as a friend at the other end of the country.”

Cruising online, said Dietz, “is no different from meeting someone at the Loading Zone and going home with them in two minutes. It’s sometimes easier than going to a bar.”

Asked about the future of the Leather community, Holmes said, “I think the future is right here. This town is showing the rest of the country how to do it right. I think we’re showing the rest of the Leather community what we can do when we get together.”

“Jo [Blas] knows this, Adam [Latham, Mr. San Diego Leather 2004] learned this and Anthony [Rollar, Mr. San Diego Leather 2010 and second runner-up at International Mr. Leather this year] is starting to learn this,” said Owens. “Whatever you do for the community, the community doesn’t owe you anything. What you do, you do because you want it.”

Article on an earlier Leather history panel at the San Diego League of Gentlemen in 2004:

Club X co-founder Madoc Pope’s recollection of the San Diego Six case:

For the record: The version of the article above incorporates some minor corrections to the original post sent to me by Caryl via E-mail. Thank you!