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Exclusive: Chicago’s International Mr. Leather Event Will Soon Repeal Its ‘Bareback Ban’ on Vendors Culture

Exclusive: Chicago’s International Mr. Leather Event Will Soon Repeal Its ‘Bareback Ban’ on Vendors

Written by Daniel Villarreal on April 14, 2019
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In 2009, Chuck Renslow, the founder of International Mr. Leather (IML), the Chicago event attended by up to 16,000 people each year, announced it would institute a bareback ban, no longer allowing “any entity which promotes barebacking or distributes/sells any merchandise tending to promote or advocate barebacking.”

Renslow’s letter to vendors cited the rise of new infections and younger generations’ inability to “comprehend the severity of the situation.” In part, the letter read, “Too many in our community believe HIV/AIDS is curable or manageable. Too few understand that HIV/AIDS infections dominate life. We believe that it is our duty to inform and educate. Several years ago when ‘Meth’ was the scourge of our community, IML drew a line in the sand and raised awareness and used all our influence to try and stop this addictive madness. As is the case with HIV/AIDS, we believe it is our further obligation to do everything in our power to prevent future infections.”

IML bareback ban 2018
Vendor booths at International Mr. Leather 2018

While the bareback ban has remained in place since 2009, it has been inconsistently applied. For example, one of this year’s vendors is Breedwell, a company that sells apparel with the word “breed” on it, a term widely understood to reference condomless sex. Raging Stallion and Falcon gay porn studios have been IML vendors for years, even though both now produce bareback porn in addition to films with condoms.

Recently, Stephan Ferris — a sex educator, HIV activist and attorney living in San Francisco who has attended IML every year since 2014 and will attend this year — shared a Facebook post that read, “With the government doing everything in its power to censor sexual expression, we shouldn’t be censoring ourselves. END THE IML VENDOR MART BAREBACK BAN!”

Commenters on Ferris’ thread agreed the ban goes against IML’s “be who you are” attitude, adding that it “scapegoats bareback studios” for the HIV epidemic and is hypocritical considering the amount of bareback sex that happens among IML attendees.

Ferris tells Hornet that the U.S. government’s 2015 shutdown of the gay sex worker site Rentboy.com and its 2018 passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA-FOSTA) — which convinced Craigslist, Facebook, Tumblr and others to censor overt expressions of sexuality on their own platforms, lest they be accused of “facilitating sex trafficking” — proves to him that “The platforms we use to express ourselves sexually are under blatant attack by our government, and our online LGBTQI community spaces are in danger of being shut down.” He thinks IML shouldn’t contribute to that widening culture of censorship.

“IML should respect the sexual autonomy of its guests and the individual freedom each person has to choose for themselves what is an acceptable sexual health risk,” Ferris says. “There is no need for IML to rescue its attendees from vendors who ‘promote or advocate barebacking’ because barebacking is no longer synonymous with HIV transmission.”

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Since IML’s 2009 bareback ban, PrEP, a medication that greatly reduces HIV transmissions, has gained increasingly widespread use, and the CDC’s 2017 declaration that HIV-positive men with undetectable viral loads are virtually incapable of transmitting the virus have changed our understanding of both condomless sex and HIV.

“A bareback ban only serves to strengthen the stigma associated with people living with HIV and people choosing to engage in condomless sex,” Ferris tells Hornet. “It is time for IML’s bareback policy to also mature and sync up with modern safer sex practices.”

Hornet reached out to Joey McDonald, president of the Chuck Renslow Charitable Corporation, the entity which oversees IML as of two years ago following the 2017 death of Renslow, the event’s founder, from heart failure. McDonald attended the very first IML in 1979 and has since become president of IML’s board and director of the corporation.

McDonald tells Hornet, “Chuck’s whole purpose has always been to protect the community.” When Renslow implemented the bareback ban in 2009, “Undetectable = untransmittable was not even on the radar yet. Large porn studios hadn’t even begun to make bareback porn; it was largely a niche market.”

He continues, “For Chuck, someone who had been a proponent for safe, protected sex since the advent of AIDS, this was a perfect storm. And he decided now he had to act. And the executive committee of IML backed him up and said, ‘OK, this is your party, this is your choice. We understand where you’re coming from.'”

IML bareback ban 2018 2

“That was what [the bareback ban] was about,” McDonald says. “It wasn’t about vilifying pornography. It wasn’t about restricting sexual freedoms. It was simply his idea of protecting the community.”

McDonald says community reactions to the ban were both passionate and divided. But, he says, “The bottom line was that there was conversation created because of what we did. People started talking about ‘What does barebacking mean? Why am I doing this? Why am I interested in it?'”

Around the time the IML bareback ban went into effect, comment boards on many gay websites debated whether gay porn studios should “perpetuate” the one sex act most likely to transmit HIV and whether condoms should be mandatory in all gay porn. A similar line of thinking led the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to support a failed ballot initiative to ban condomless porn in California as recently as 2016.

However, McDonald claims, “There has been no enforcement of the ban in many years.”

This is because while addressing the 2014 IML event, Renslow called the widespread availability of PrEP “the advent of a new day for [gay] sexuality,” adding, “our community has learned a lot from this [HIV/AIDS] crisis, and we’ve matured.” That’s when enforcement of the ban stopped, according to McDonald. As it stands now, the ban mostly “exists in people’s heads,” he says, claiming that IML has not turned away vendors for ‘promoting’ barebacking since then.

RELATED | 25 Sexy Portraits From International Mr. Leather 2018 in Chicago

The idea of a ‘ban in name only’ doesn’t appease Ferris, though, who tells Hornet, “A continued ban on bareback content means that IML continues to label people who engage in condomless sex as ‘others.’ It means that IML supports the notion that people who engage in condomless sex are irresponsible for their own sexual health and the collective sexual health of the community. The ban sends a clear message that this type of behavior is unacceptable and immoral, which is hypocritical coming from an institution that prides itself on being sexual outlaws.”

McDonald says IML’s leadership hasn’t formally repealed the ban yet because, with Renslow’s death in 2017 due to heart failure, the corporation has been busy handling aspects of his businesses that included a bathhouse and real estate holdings. “Because it wasn’t being enforced, [repealing the ban] wasn’t at the top of our list of things to do,” he says. IML is largely dependent on unpaid volunteers, most of whom work day jobs, and the organization has no staff to help handle phone calls or emails. According to McDonald, IML organizers have been busy handling details of Renslow’s estate.

“When you go from a single-person ownership to a corporate nonprofit, there are a lot of hoops you have to go through,” McDonald says, “dealing with the state of Illinois and federal government to make sure that we have everything in place, to make sure that this functions, that we go on as a great organization doing great work.”

But McDonald tells Hornet that IML will repeal the bareback ban.

IML bareback ban 1979
A snapshot from IML 1979

“It’s going to happen, sooner rather than later,” he says. “It’s just a matter of actually putting that statement down on paper and making a press release.” The corporate board has apparently been considering its repeal for a while but has never announced it because no one has ever actually approached the organization to ask about it.

When asked how he feels about the large amounts of condomless sex happening at IML, McDonald says, “I have never and Chuck has never told anyone what they can do sexually. IML has never made a statement about people barebacking. They made a statement about selling and promoting barebacking. To me those are two very different things.”

McDonald says because many gay people get their sex education from pornography, there was a worry in 2009 that they’d emulate whatever they saw on-screen.

“It’s not about shaming. It was never about shaming,” McDonald says. “And whether it was a flawed idea or not, it was an idea to protect the community.”

What are your thoughts on this news that the IML bareback ban will be repealed?

All photos courtesy of the IML website

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