When Jeffrey Payne learned he was HIV-positive in 2008, he didn't let the sobering news keep him from pursuing a lifelong dream: to enter and win a Dallas leatherman competition. That win ultimately propelled 42-year-old Payne to the top of the competition circuit in May 2009 when he was crowned International Mr. Leather. Now, at the end of his yearlong reign, Payne reflects on what it's like to publicly be the ultimate leatherman and simultaneously try to shatter HIV stigma -- at appearances in more than 30 cities across five continents.
What drove you to compete for the IML title and the contests leading up to it?
I entered for personal and community reasons. The personal reasons were to test my own limits and comfort zone. The community reasons were to give a larger voice to issues I feel are important and to be the voice of a community that I absolutely love and care for.
Were you open about your HIV status during competition?
I was very open about it. In fact, during the speech portion at the IML contest, I spoke about being HIV-positive. I wanted to let others know that it was my local community -- the Dallas leather community -- that helped me through the emotional roller coaster when I found out I was positive. My community didn't shun me or avoid me but quite the opposite; it embraced me more than ever and helped me.
As the IML titleholder, you've participated in nearly 50 public events. Did you speak about HIV at those?
I do use the title as a springboard to being vocal about HIV issues. To a certain degree, there is still a stigma attached to HIV-positive people, and being given the chance to speak about HIV gives me the opportunity to hopefully lessen that stigma. Some folks like to keep blinders on and avoid the topic, so we need to keep pushing to ensure that everyone has frank and honest discussions.
Even among gay men, there's often a divide between HIV-negative and HIV-positive people. Does that exist in the leather community?
To an extent, I would say a divide exists; however, it is one that is shrinking. More people are being open about the subject and are developing a growing understand about HIV. However, broadening HIV awareness shouldn't be limited to the leather community. It should be happening everywhere. We seem to have reached this era of complacency concerning HIV, where some people are under the belief that contracting the virus is not such a bad thing. That's bullshit!
So what's been the crowd reaction in general to your candidness about your life with HIV?
It's been terrific! In fact, at one conference where I gave a speech about being HIV-positive, one of the MCs also came out of the "HIV closet" and said he'd been positive for eight years but never felt comfortable telling anyone before. I know that if I continue to share my journey, others like him may draw strength and be able to free themselves of those invisible chains that HIV has wrapped around them.