When Mr. Los Angeles Leather 2015, Patrick Smith, gave his 90-second speech at the International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago this year, he spoke on something he cared deeply about.
"The speech celebrated the progress we have made in the Western world, but it also called attention to the fact that things are very difficult for LGBT people in many other areas," Smith tells The Advocate.
The 90-second speech comes on the final day of the contest, which has taken place every year since 1979. At 91 seconds, the microphone shuts off. The speech is followed by a physique show where contestants strut onstage in leather jockstraps and harnesses.
When Smith won, he knew he had to do something important with the platform the title offers. "I wanted to actually walk the walk and not just pay lip service to these issues," he says. "Uganda was a natural choice given all of the attention it's been getting for its recent legislative actions against LGBT people."
Uganda has a dark history regarding its LGBT citizens. In early 2014, antigay President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act, dubbed the "jail the gays" bill, which was struck down six months later by the nation's high court (because of a procedural issue, not its content). But homophobia still runs rampant in the east African nation. A glaring example of the animus came when Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone published the names of Ugandan LGBT activists with the headline, "Hang Them." Homosexuality remains criminalized in Uganda.
In many ways, Uganda is the antithesis of Smith's leather culture, which celebrates sexuality in open, public ways. "I was actually encouraged not to go [to Uganda] by a good number of people," Smith says. "They were concerned for my safety, which is understandable, but I felt this was something very important for me to do."
Smith, who financed his own trip, met with some of Uganda's most prominent activists to learn about the daily lives of LGBT people there and figure out what more could be done to help. He interviewed Frank Mugisha, who won the JFK Human Rights Award in 2011.
"He's very warm, open, and candid," Smith says. Mugisha told him about his experience with a suicidal boy who reached out to him. Risking a possible entrapment situation, Mugisha counseled the child.
"This boy had been told by his friends, in church, and in the media that same-sex attraction was wrong and sinful, and felt he had no other choice than to take his life," Smith says. "Dr. Mugisha talked with him for hours, and over the next several days and weeks, and he didn't kill himself."
Smith also met Rev. Mark Kiyimba, a Ugandan LGBT activist who leads the Unitarian Universalist Church in the capital city of Kampala. Kiyimba preaches that homosexuality is compatible with Christianity — a bold campaign in a country like Uganda. As The New York Times and others have reported, the fierce wave of antigay sentiment and legislation in Uganda is partly due to the work of American Christian right activists. Some of them spoke at a 2009 Kampala conference that, according to Stephen Langa, the Ugandan organizer of the event, was about "the gay agenda — that whole hidden and dark agenda."
While Smith's interviews and meetings were impactful, what affected him the most was seeing Uganda's antigay laws carried out. "The day I was leaving, news broke that Ugandan football manager Chris Mubiru was convicted under the country's sodomy law, which carries with it an 18-year prison sentence. Actually being there in that country when the story broke felt much different than reading it from afar."
According to Ugandan newspaper The Observer, the state prosecutor asked the court to give Mubiru a sentence of life imprisonment because his actions were "against the cultural norms." Smith says, "It really hit home that this is the reality for thousands of LGBT people in Africa, and it could happen to any one of them."
Smith isn't the first Mr. L.A. Leather to use the platform for good. One of Smith's best friends, Eric Paul Leue, won Mr. L.A. Leather 2014. Leue has spent the past year educating gay and bi men across the United States and Europe on pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.
Leue is the director of sexual health and advocacy at Kink.com, a leather, fetish, and BDSM porn studio based in San Francisco. Leue estimates that he has been to over 70 cities and held more than 55 PrEP panels so far.
"Fighting HIV and AIDS has always come naturally to us, because when you're into stuff like bondage, flogging, extended bondage, S&M, fisting, you have to be comfortable talking about the body and about your limits," Leue says. "So talking about HIV even in the early days of the epidemic came naturally to us."
Smith agrees, saying the title of International Mr. Leather has "been a service-oriented title for quite some time now. In the beginning — 37 years ago — it was mostly about sex appeal. But once the AIDS crisis hit, you saw a new wave of titleholders who were more dedicated to community service."
But Marlon Morales, chair of Los Angeles Leather Pride, said the focus on community service is not a feature of the organizations that choose the winners. "We [the L.A. Leather Coalition] never ask the winners to do anything specific," Morales says. "To win, you just have to be approachable, charistmatic, and sexy — we don't shy away from that, we're a very sex-positive community." Morales says that the trend of titleholders giving back is because "that's the people that win. If you go back and see past winners, both of Mr. L.A. Leather and International Mr. Leather, a lot of them come from backgrounds of activism. Some of the greatest activists have come out of the leather and fetish communities."
Now that he's back in the States, Smith will continue to use his title as International Mr. Leather to raise awareness about the situation of LGBT people in Africa. "I really think we need to become more internationally focused," he says. "While there is always still work to do at home, we have it pretty good in the U.S., and it's time to help the sexual minorities overseas who are really struggling."