I was diagnosed with HIV on June 6, 2011 and it was without doubt something that would forever change who I was and my path in life. October of that same year would find me donning leather and for the very first time taking the stage for Mr. Midwest Leather in St. Louis, Missouri. Who I was at that moment is a far-cry from who I am today as an activist and as a leather-man. I would not win the title that year but instead I would place as the first runner-up.
I would continue to grow in leather and as an activist. In 2012 I would pack up my VW Jetta and drive 16 hours to the first International AIDS Conference that has been held in the United States in over twenty years. It was during this trip that I would form my first friendships with fellow leather-men such as Justin B Terry-Smith and David Ponzaratti. It was through these relationships when I fully realized the brotherhood that we know within the leather community. As time went on, I would form more relationships with men and women who would mentor and guide me, men such as Onyx Rod, Ron Moser, DJ Kaiser and lest I never forget the leadership that I have witnessed from my friend and mentor Karen Ultra. These are people who I seek guidance from and share moments of success as well as failure. I would continue to grow as a leather man as well as form deep friendships within the worldwide community of leather. Whether working closely with Terry Laupp and Chad Carroll with the Balloon Brigade or the Black and Lou Ball, there has been no shortage of work to do whether it be raising money for a charity or public awareness and education.
Again I would run for Mr. Midwest Leather however Matt Hengle proved to be the man that was right for the title. This second loss helped to teach me a lot about myself and what I needed to focus on. As time went on my work with HIV/AIDS activism intensified; I traveled more, did more conferences, continued my Youtube channel (My HIV Journey) and began to write more articles. I also began to write regularly for the Great Lakes Den on my column “Sex Ed the Way it ought to be.”
In 2013, it was the second year that I would attend and volunteer at International Mr. Leather. It was here where I would be pinned into Mama’s Leather Family as “Mama’s Kinky Educator” and I would also get the chance to cheer Matt Hengle on for International Mr. Leather. What I discovered through this journey was that I was also part of a fraternal brotherhood within the leather community. Now as I continue on with my journey I am able to fight stigma of HIV with brothers such as David Watt, Derek Harley and Jack Garcia from across the United States. I am united in solidarity in the fight for PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) a medication which in 99% effective in preventing HIV infection, with great leather men such as those previously named and others such as Eric Paul Leue.
I shared by journey with you as an example of how getting involved can and will forever change the path that you are on. The relationships that you will develop along the way will be the ones that sustain you through difficult times. People often talk about how the leather community is changing and fading. That is only true if we allow it to. I am thankful to have met so many leather men and women who along the way have encouraged and motivated me. No journey can be predicted completely which is why the journey is so much fun. I am thankful to be in the trenches fighting for social change with fellow leather men and women. I look to my left and my right and I see my brothers and my sisters. The same people that I enjoy the good times with at International Mr. Leather and CLAW are also the people on conference calls and strategic planning meetings. Never underestimate the brotherhood and sisterhood that we form when we surrender ourselves to a force greater than us.
I often think of the tattoo that Derek Harley has of the Leather Flag where his heart is. The passion that spoke through a tattoo is shown repeatedly by brothers such as Jeremy Morris provide an example of what I strive to be; forever better and always thankful for leaders who truly are setting the example.
Leather is dead…? Leather is only dead if you allow it to die. As for me, I refuse to allow leather to die.
Aaron Laxton is an HIV activist and “Mama’s Kinky Educator.” Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlaxton. He serves on the Community Advisory Board for the AIDS Clinical Trials Group as well as the Community Scientific Sub-Committee. He lives in St. Louis and his column runs monthly.