Every year, Montrose leather bar The Ripcord crowns the king of all things leather: Mr. Prime Choice. Men over 40 vie for the title by picking an LGBT charity, fundraising for it and strutting their best leather get-ups onstage. This was the competition's 30-year anniversary, and Ripcord regular Tim Angelle, 50, decided to enter.
That's when the true colors of the leather community started to surface, Angelle said. The gay Montrose set is perhaps the last place you'd expect to find racism, but there it was -- plain as the slur that Angelle would find scrawled across his poster.
At first, Angelle said his candidacy seemed welcomed by the producer of the event, Don Gill, who told Angelle that he was the first African-American to ever run for Prime Choice. For a couple weeks, Angelle was the only entrant.
Then one night, he found out he had competition. Fred Walters, founder of the Houston Buyer's Club, was officially running. It seemed odd to Angelle, who said that Walters isn't part of the leather scene. Not to mention, the Houston Buyer's Club was on the list of recommended charities in the entrant packet. To him, it seemed like a conflict of interest.
Don Gill said he approached Walters when he heard that he might be interested and encouraged him to run. "If we see someone out in the community that can possibly make a statement, we say, 'Hey, when you turn 40 -- or if you are 40 -- why don't you consider running for Prime Choice?'" Gill said.
Later that night, Angelle went out to a bar in the neighborhood. He found his Mr. Prime Choice poster taped up in the bathroom, with "GO HOME COON" scrawled across his photos.
"I was really upset about it," Angelle said. But he wasn't shocked. He and other blacks have experienced racism firsthand in Montrose, from the days when they had to show two forms of identification to get into bars, unlike the white men who would cruise right in. "The white gays think that Montrose is for them," Angelle said. "They really think that they're the only representation of Montrose."
The racial slur just added fuel to his fire to win. Angelle held four fundraisers at local gay bars to benefit his chosen charity, Thomas Street Clinic Food Program. He raised money through entertaining, sometimes by go-go dancing in G-strings. "Whatever it took to raise the money for my charity, I did," Angelle said. Though it wasn't part of the packet of rules he received, Angelle was instructed by the program organizer that he had to have an official from the contest at each of his fundraisers, turn in all receipts, and have two other people sign off on his totals.
Walters raised his money by asking his Facebook friends for donations. Gill said that he beat Angelle's total, according to a check cut from the Houston Buyer's Club -- Walters' chosen charity, and one of which he happens to be executive director.
Angelle's partner, Darryl Bryant, thinks the rules weren't uniform. "Why does he have to have fundraisers with two people there at every fundraiser, when this guy can just raise it on the Internet and nobody knows if he raised it or not?" Bryant said. "If that was the case, we could've just wrote a check and not done anything."
The night of the competition on April 30, Angelle says, he got strange vibes from the judges of Prime Choice. One of the judge's questions, he said, was especially uncomfortable: "If you were a color, which color would you be?" Angelle thought he misheard the judge and asked him to repeat it. "I didn't know how to answer the question," Angelle said. So he decided to interpret it non-racially, answering instead according to the leather community's take on color. (Ask Professor Peaches if you want to learn more about color meanings and hanky code.)
"Every color in the Crayola box means something in the leather community," Angelle answered. And although he doesn't participate in the colors, he respects them, he added.
Rodney Matthews, who was in the audience that night, thought the question was inappropriate. Still, he felt sure Angelle would win, since Matthews says he was the obvious audience favorite. "When Tim came out, the crowd whooped and yelled and screamed," Matthews said. And when Walters came out -- "Everybody was like, why is he up there? He's not in that realm." But Walters, he said, seemed to be the favorite of the emcee, who stayed onstage with Walters whenever he answered a question and walked off when Angelle came on to speak.
Walters was named Mr. Prime Choice.
Not that Matthews was surprised. He thinks Angelle's loss was the result of abiding racism in the gay community. "It doesn't come down to whether you can perform, how well you present yourself, how much money you raise, nothing like that. It always comes down to who are your friends, and who is running the organization," he said. "The decision was made when Fred was asked to run."
Later that night, Angelle and his partner went out for a consolation drink. Gill happened to walk in the bar. "We get to talking," said Angelle. "He's patting me on my back, saying, 'You did a good job,' blah blah blah." Then, Gill said something that stunned Angelle. "He tells me, 'Well, I had to talk Fred Walters into running against you.'"
Just last year, the title had been given to a man who had no competitors. (Gill said that he did look for people to run last year, but couldn't find anyone. The competitor, he said, was very popular.)
Angelle asked Gill why he'd recruit competition for Angelle. "He said, 'Well, when Jesse Jackson ran for president, he didn't win on his first try,'" said Angelle.
Disgusted, Angelle sent a letter to the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, who said there's nothing they could do. Noel Freeman, the group's president, sent a letter which included this statement:
Your allegation of racial bias is essentially your word versus that of Mr. Gill, and I suspect that by his lack of response to my inquiry, he is not particularly interested in addressing such allegations. As such, there is no reason or authority for us to become involved in this matter.
Gill said that he thinks Angelle is "absolutely delightful" as a person, and that his allegations of racism are untrue. "Being a minority myself, being a homosexual, growing up being different, why would I want to be racist?" he said. "I think I would allow Montrose, Texas to speak for that."
Update: Following the printing of this article, Noel Freeman, President of the GLBT Political Caucus, sent a second letter to Tim Angelle saying he "conducted additional investigation" of Don Gill, The Ripcord, and those present at the contest. (Freeman provided us with a copy.) Gill, he wrote, said that he believed Angelle lost the contest for two reasons:
1.) Your fundraising totals were less than those of Fred Walters; and 2.) You made remarks to the judges during the leather garb portion of the competition that members of the leather and fetish community likely found to be offensive.
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Freeman wrote later in the letter that among these comments were that Angelle said he was "not really into leather."
Freeman also said he found no conflict of interest by Walters supporting Houston Buyers Club. "Additionally, with regard to your assertion that Mr. Walters made a contribution of his own in order to bolster his own totals, it is not uncommon for people involved in fundraising contests to contribute their own funds to their cause," he wrote.
As for the vandalized poster: The Caucus very strongly condemns the use of any such slurs or racial bias of any kind, Freeman wrote.
I am unable to conclusively determine whether or not racial bias played a role in your loss at the Mr. Prime Choice contest, but there seems to be a clear indication that other factors may have negatively affected your score. I will, however, prepare a request to the Ripcord asking that they pay particular attention to allegations of racial bias and take a firm stance in rejecting racial bias from their employees, customers, and vendors and appropriately address any allegations that are substantiated. Our community has grown out of a desire for acceptance and tolerance of all members of our community, and I will call upon The Ripcord to affirm their commitment to acceptance and tolerance.