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A View From The Podium
A View From The Podium
I have to admit, I was looking for a way to fix “it”; that “it” that gnaws inside men who lead lives of quiet desperation – a desperation I knew all too well; that “it” that tells a gay kid he will never win the love of his father; that “it” that tells a gay adult his talent is not wanted and not welcome in general society.
At 42 years old I had been looking for ways to fix “it” my entire life … and now that possibility was only seconds away.
I was standing on the stage of the Chicago Theater, where I was a finalist in The 2007 International Mr. Leather competition. It had started four days earlier with 52 men, and was about to end, with the calling of the winner’s name.
For the non-leather “muggles” hearing this story, it may be necessary to explain the often secretive Leatherman and our highest of high holy days known as International Mister Leather - called IML for short.
First of all, do not confuse IML with the lesser tribal gatherings such as LAL (Los Angeles Leather), MAL (Mid Atlantic Leather), MLT (Mr. Leather Toronto), CLAW (Cleveland Leather Awareness Week), ABW (American Brotherhood Weekend), LLC (Leather Leadership Conference), IDL (International Deaf Leather), ILSb (International Leather Sir/leather boy), The Pantheon of Leather, or the hundreds of other leather events held in North America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa. IML is the contest the winners of every other contest come to compete in.
“Are you ready?” Chuck Renslow, the owner of the event he created 29 years before, prepared to open the envelope holding the name of the next IML.
The irony of desperately wanting my name called – when I knew being the most famous Leatherman in the world would horrify those who had called me “wicked” all my life – still surprised me.
Back in Pocatello Idaho, it was 1982 and I was 17, when my Mormon Bishop sat me down in his office to tell me that my homosexual nature put me on equal footing with a murderer. I had loved the Church! The ritual, the service, and the brotherhood – I really loved it! So I was devastated.
I had to believe what he said though, after all, he had one of the same pedigrees I had showing our direct connection to God the Father. If he said, Mike Gerle, the kid other kids nicked named “Moses” because he enjoyed following all the rules, was a murder, I had to listen.
As it turns out, a 17-year-old’s raging hormones are not at all that interested in following rules or listening.
I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the perky young lassies walking the halls of Highland High school, but the star center of the basketball team (who happened to be the Bishop’s son) that was a different story. Woof!
I graduated high school in 1983, and by 1985 had escaped to the Stage 7 ballet school in San Diego. You see, while sorting out all this homosexuality stuff I attended a lot of high school dances, which naturally lead to ballroom dancing, which naturally lead to ballet.
Trust me, it’s natural if you’re gay.
Ballet was a world that gave me back the structure and beauty I missed from the Church. Two years later I was auditioning for the Canadian Royal Winnipeg Ballet and they accepted me.
Just before leaving for the audition, however, I’d taken an HIV test. The results came with a consult from a bureaucrat in a white coat who said, “We have no treatment. Most people are dying in 18 months. Some don’t. Have a nice day.”
Getting my affairs in order would not include a move to Canada. Instead, my affairs included giving the eulogy at my best friend Alvin’s funeral, and another eulogy a couple of years later, in 1990, when my boyfriend Tony died.
No time for dancing.
I coped with the plague by becoming a full-time drug addict. Why not party until the end came? Like Dorothy’s cyclone in the Wizard of Oz, a blur of drug use landed me in West Hollywood. I “came to” in a 12-step room full of gay men and women who nursed me back to sanity. Then protease inhibitors came out and almost overnight people stopped dying by the millions. A doctor’s graph showed me that the time bomb in my bloodstream was not going to detonate anytime soon. Like many others, I went from an AIDS diagnosis to practically normal.
And that’s when the quiet desperation started.
I realized I only liked “normal” when it came to my blood work. Where my sexuality was concerned, I still had appetites even California gays and lesbians couldn’t accept.
Against their advice, I went to my first Tom of Finland “Butt Boys” Party in 1997. It changed my life forever.
Upon entering I was required to sign a waver making me responsible for anything that might happen; that in itself was exciting. I quickly changed out of my baggy jeans into black leather shorts, a pair of boots I’d found at a thrift store, a harness I’d bought for the occasion, and a Muir cap which is sometimes referred to as a Master’s cap. I had no idea what I was doing, but knew that I liked it.
I made my way through the many rooms of the event to an open-air area in the back. I stood there smoking a cigarette, not really knowing what I was seeing, when a beautiful shirtless man, probably 30 years old walked over to me – without saying a word, he knelt down and began to nuzzle my boots. He settled back on his haunches and leaned his head against my thigh. Looking down, I could see only the back of his bowed head and his arms held purposefully behind his back. Instinctively, I reached down and stroked his neck.
“Thank you Sir,” the words came up from him and entered my soul. In that moment, the world was perfect.
For years I resisted the truth, the reality, that for me, there was more to those dark rooms and leather bars than just sex. It was safer to stay in my kinky closet; to pretend I was above their deviance; to avoid risking their rejection. If those men knew who I really was; a good boy from Idaho, I would certainly not be kinky enough; so I rejected them preemptively; told myself I was content to play the lone wolf, lurking in the corners of bars, fucking in private spaces, and never letting anyone get to know the man under the gear.
Then one night, while driving back to West Hollywood from the kind of play party at the Lair De Sade that had always satisfied my needs in the past, the Eagles sang Desperado on the radio. “You better let somebody love you! Let somebody love you.” Tears rolled down my face and splashed onto my leather chaps, falling faster than I could brush them away. I wanted a deeper connection with the men and the places that felt like home. Ignoring it was no longer an option.
So I decided to enter one of the leather contests I’d seen over the years. It was an easy way to get some visibility in the kinky world; I’d be forced to interact with people, and maybe find a boyfriend; one who liked the kind of sex I wanted.
I soon found out that being a successful contestant requires a great deal of research about the community’s history. My competitive nature had me devouring all the books I could find.
I learned that contemporary Leathermen were born out of the gay World War II veterans that were discharged into port cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Instead of going back to places like Nebraska or Idaho, they stayed on the coast. They retained their military sensibilities. They believed in honor. They liked the rules, the discipline, and the protocol.
They were like me. I was like them.
I also learned that Chuck Renslow had a leather pedigree going back decades. And now that man was looking at me on the stage of the Chicago Theater. At least I thought he was looking at me.
“Are you ready?” he asked as he tore open the envelope. “International Mister Leather 2007 is – Number 43, Mike Gerle from Los Angeles, California!”
I now know that the roar of that crowd was the roar of people who knew me even better than I knew myself. No more hiding, no more acting, and no more lying. I was only beginning to understand the beauty of my newfound family when the leaders of that family chose me to represent what is best about them.
The 1st and 2nd runners up – already standing in their positions – surprised me by joining the applause from the thousands of people filling the theater. As I stepped off the risers holding the finalists and approached the winner’s platform, Rob and Bill reached down with their leather-gloved hands to pull me up onto the highest level of the podium. And together, hands held high we smiled into the blinding lights of home.