Mr. Eagle 2015, boy Laney Ballard, discovered just how big the legacy of The Eagle is when he took his Title almost a year ago. Within 24 hours of winning the Contest, he was being contacted by new admirers from as far away as Berlin. As The Eagle’s ambassador to the worldwide Leather community, he reveals, “It’s been a learning experience: to have everyone’s eyes on you. Even when I’m not wearing my Title vest, people recognize me. I learned just how prestigious it is to wear the Title of Mr. Eagle NYC, and how it is to be so respected in the Leather community.” It made him more visible, but also very BUSY. Six months into his Title year, he had already racked up countless frequent flyer miles and countless hours in hotels across the country. Many more events would come in the next six months, including his appearing at, hosting parties at, and/or speaking at events in Fire Island, Provincetown (Bear Week), Cleveland (Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend), and of course, International Mr. Leather.
Boy Laney has lived in New York since 1992, but grew up in western Texas, on a cotton and peanut farm. (He still has the traces of a southern accent to prove it!) There were 17 people in his graduating class. At age 52, he’s become one of the most visible representatives for the New York City Leather community. He’s also very involved in the Leather community in Florida, where he has a house with his husband of 23 years Bruce. As he approaches the night where he’ll pass the torch to the lucky guy who will be named Mr. Eagle NYC 2016 next month, he took the time to speak to me about many topics: including his own history in the Leather world, representing New York City, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), and much more:
JR: Thanks for meeting with me! So, since you were named Mr. Eagle 2015, what has been the most thrilling thing so far?
LB: I’ve always been involved in community service, and one thing that this Title has done is that it’s opened doors that probably never would have been opened before. It’s probably put me about ten years ahead of what my mission has been, both as someone in the Leather community, and personally as well.
JR: In your speech during the Contest almost a year ago, you spoke about how as Leathermen, we will probably have to fight to keep our culture alive. That really hit home to a lot of people in the audience, because we’ve all noticed that Leather bars, and gay bars in general, have been closing. What can all of us do to make a difference?
LB: I think that because of technology, and where we are in society, we can get too wrapped up in the everyday thing and just kind of “go with the flow”. We have to be cognizant of how things are changing in our community, and keep the focus of who we are and what we need to do to keep that identity of the Leather community. I think that just by doing that, we may choose to go out on a Thursday night instead of just sitting home, for example. Just by showing up for an hour or an hour and a half, you don’t know what kind of change that may suddenly make in another person’s life. If you just happen to talk to another person who is visiting the Eagle for the first time, and they happen to be there on Code night, and they are thinking, “Oh my goodness. You know, I kind of like this, but is this the community for me?”, then just by talking with someone, I think a lot of times they may learn that we’re a very warm community. When people know you as a Leatherman and they are not part of the Leather community themselves, they may think, “Oh, you’re a big rough group!” (Laughs) And that’s not what the Leather community is at all!
JR:How true! Since you came to New York in the early 90’s, what has been the biggest change that you’ve seen in the Leather world– aside from the fact that, sadly, we don’t have as many bars as we used to?
LB: Yes, we have lost a lot of bars, and a lot of that is sadly due to the AIDS crisis. We lost most of our community. (Pauses) That’s been very tough. So, it’s almost like most of our community was wiped out… and the guys that we didn’t lose, because they lost many loved ones, probably became disheartened and left the community. I think we’ve almost kind of had to start the Leather brotherhood over again. And that’s been a hard struggle.
JR:I agree. I really feel that we lost an entire generation.
LB: Yes, we did…
JR: We’ve also lost a lot of our history in other ways, even before we had the chance to discover it. Before the advent of the internet, most of our communication was done with printed media in underground magazines and newspapers: articles, personal ads, photos, etc. There was really stories behind those… stories of people’s LIVES. Once those archives were gone, so was much of our history. AIDS left a scar on our community, and even with all the wonderful advancements in AIDS/HIV, there’s still that scar which will unfortunately never go away.
LB: I agree. That’s why a lot of times, it’s hard for me to talk about the Leather community of the past. I sometimes cry when I talk about it.
JR:While we are on the subject, when did you first start to identify yourself as a Leatherman?
LB: It’s been a long, drawn out journey. I started going to the Ripcord in Dallas in 1985. There was no Dallas Eagle at that time. I was hanging out between there and the country bar. That’s probably when I really started being curious about it, and started finding my way in the Leather community. After I moved to New York, I went out a few times… but I think I became more stale in the journey. I really started picking up again about 12 years ago or so. It was around the time The Lure closed. That was an incredible place! (Laughs)
LB: From 1989 to 2000, I was an IV nurse, and I only worked with AIDS patients. I was very consumed in that whole crisis at that time. I have a couple of mentors who were dear to my heart who took me under their wing, and showed me me the way. I realized that I identify as a boy at heart– so that’s been a very important part of the journey as well. I still hold my mentors very close in my heart today. But at the same time, I wanted to give something back as far as the mentorship. Identifying as a boy, and as a Mr. Eagle, has given me that chance. I think that the community had a hard time wrapping their arms around my being a boy and also being Mr. Eagle! And being a 52-year old boy is hard for some people to wrap their arms around too!(Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) People need to learn about what being a “boy” means, for starts. And people NEED to be challenged! And if it challenges people’s ideas about what it means to be a boy, and what a boy “should” be, and what Mr. Eagle “should” be, then that’s a great thing!
LB: Exactly! So, I’ve kind of pushed those boundaries out. I can’t tell you how many people have contacted me and said, “I identify as a boy. I know I am one. But I don’t know how to get involved.” That’s been huge for me, not just in New York but all up and down the East Coast. I even hooked up with a boy group in Chicago. That has been one thing… and then I have four guys who I actively mentor. That has definitely opened the door for me to do more mentoring… and to educate people on what a boy’s role is: being committed to service.
JR: That’s great! So, at IML you represented New York City. What makes a New York Leatherman unique, in distinction, let’s say, to someone from the Midwest, or the West Coast?
LB: New York is a place where people live on the edge… much more than other parts of the United States where it’s more conservative. New Yorkers will always be seen as edgy people. I think that’s one thing that will make us different. Plus, there’s that tradition. For me, tradition is everything! People talk about Old Guard and New Guard, but I think it’s about remembering who we are, and what our traditions are. I’m very traditional when it comes to the Daddy and boy roles, and collaring, and all of that. We have to remember those traditions and keep them going… but at the same time, we can’t be afraid to look at alternative ways to accept other people and to make them feel more comfortable and accepted in the community. Keep tradition going, but don’t be afraid to “push the limits”! Part of the Leather community is to push the limits, and to be different. That’s what we’re about.
JR: No doubt! Earlier, you spoke about your work with AIDS patients. Is HIV/AIDS your most passionate cause?
LB: Yes. I lost all of my friends from the ’80’s. Because I worked in the field of nursing for so many years, that’s just something I totally dedicated my life to. Prior to winning the Title, my mission was educating and promoting PrEP. That has opened a tremendous amount of doors for me. I’m working with the Department of Health now as a spokesperson for PrEP, and I did a presentation at CLAW about PrEP. There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not contacted on Facebook or some type of social media asking, “What is PrEP? How can I get hooked up? Can you help me?” So, people are really finding out about it, and are for it. As you know, our Governor here in the State of New York wants everybody on PrEP– whether you can afford it or not– if you are negative and sexually active. Still, there’s a lot of stigma attached to it, and it’s not for everybody. You have to ask yourself, “Is it right for me?” Some people don’t want to deal with taking a pill every day, or with the possible side effects. I personally have never had any side effects. If anything, it makes me get tested every two to three months– not just for HIV, but for everything else… whereas before I’d maybe get tested, say, every eight or nine months. It’s very unusual in the Leather community, I think, to find a 52-year old boy who is HIV negative (Laughs), and that’s just because I was always very strict about playing safe. This medication is kind of liberating in that you can now maybe take it “one more step”.
JR: I really believe that there’s another problem, at least for men who identify as tops: After men reach a certain age, we do start to lose some sensitivity down there. Now, I know that there are a lot of guys even in their 70’s– I can give you names!– who are still shooting their load every day… but still, physical changes happen and it just doesn’t feel as good to wear condoms. I really believe that that’s why a lot of guys just don’t want to wear them anymore… in addition to “condom burnout”.
LB: A lot of people may say that they always use condoms, but I can guarantee you that most of the guys my age DON’T. I’ve got two friends right now who are boys and who are new to the community. They are looking for Sirs, and I tell them, “The chances of you finding a Sir who is going to use a condom is probably about .01 percent.” I’ve told both of them that they really need to lay it all down… because it’s hard enough to find the right person to be of service to anyway, but to find someone who’s going to use a condom every time probably just isn’t going to happen.
JR: How do they react when you tell them that?
LB: I think they realize that they do need to look at PrEP. Even if you do use condoms, you probably still need to be on PrEP… because condoms can break, and if that happened then you’d probably have to go on PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) anyway. So… there’s just a lot of education, and even though a lot of information has been put out there, people still don’t know it’s available. Reserach does show that PreP is 99% effective if you’re compliant with taking it every day.
JR: So, what do you like to do in your spare time? I suspect that you probably haven’t had much lately…
LB: Being Mr. Eagle IS a full-time job! I try to do the community service aspect of it, and to represent The Eagle and New York all over the U.S. I don’t think you can ever please everybody 100%. Some people want you to do more community service, others want you do this or that… I try to keep a nice level of equilibrium. You have to balance your professional job too. Every weekend I’m on the road! And… I try to go to the Eagle at least twice a week, even if it’s only for 30 or 45 minutes. So, it’s been crazy! It’s hard trying to get it all in sometimes. But one thing I really do enjoy when I’m home are my Bonzai trees. I love growing them, I love developing them, and that’s kind of my little getaway that I do. I have trees both in New York and Florida.
JR:Nice! Now, I have to ask my favorite question: What makes a guy sexy for you?
LB: A guy in full Leathers. The Sam Brown definitely. You can have just jeans and a Sam Brown on and it will put me over the edge!
JR: Your fans will be grateful for that information! Thanks for speaking with me!
One thing’s for sure: The next Mr. Eagle NYC will have BIG boots to fill! The Mr. Eagle NYC 2016 Contest will be the weekend of October 2-4. Interested? Visit www.EagleNYC.com for more info!
(Photos of boy Laney by Flash Onyx. You can see the unedited, never-before seen photos of Laney and his IML brothers in the new 2016 calendar “Underneath the Sash”, benefitting The Leather Archives and Museum. Buy yours at www.UnderneathTheSash.com.)