by Jessica Carreras
Dale Ross is a 61-year-old leather enthusiast, HIV/AIDS activist, teacher, writer and social worker. He lives with his partner in Berkley and runs a counseling practice in Southfield.
1) Tell me about the creation of the Leather Institute for Education-Detroit.
Twenty-five years ago, Jim Brown was the next Mr. Detroit Leather titleholder and sharing my previous year’s experience became the foundation of a social friendship that continued over the years. In 2002, Jim (now owner of Diamond Jim’s Saloon in Detroit) invited myself and Larry L’Varado (a straight leatherman and leader in his community) to form a new social service community organization where people could come together to learn and share their knowledge with other like minded individuals – LIFE-Detroit.
2) How has the group grown since you started it?
Three years after its informal beginnings, Larry moved to California and I became busy working out of St. John Health System – Eastwood Clinics, in addition to continuing my private practice, so the leadership was handed over to a newly formed board of directors. These hard-working individuals have gone on to develop LIFE-Detroit as a formal nonprofit.
In addition to the continuing educational focus, the group has worked to be the hub of information for many local leather organizations throughout the region. In 2005, the group and its leadership received several Pantheon of Leather Awards in Chicago, including small non-profit organization of the year.
It is with great pride that I look at what the current leadership has gone on to accomplish, and feel privileged and honored to have been asked to help during its formative years, like a parent who’s children have become fine and mature adults and upstanding citizens.
3) What upcoming events does LIFE-Detroit have planned?
Traditional offerings of LIFE-Detroit now include the monthly educational presentations, a community calendar, a new cookbook, an anniversary event and the annual Detroit Area Rough And Kinkfest Weekend in February.
A very exciting event is the 14th Annual Leather Leadership Conference, to be held in metro Detroit April 9 – 11, 2010. Expecting 500+ leather community leaders from around the country, the conference will also be the first time it will be international, with the inclusion of Toronto on the expanded Great Lakes/Ontario conference planning committee! It was LIFE-Detroit’s new and active leadership which spearheaded this conference coming to Detroit.
4) How did you get involved in the leather community?
When I came out in the ’60s there was not much of a gay or leather community anywhere – only bars in bad neighborhoods and some small publications.
Growing up in Hazel Park, I’d take two buses to downtown Detroit to search the news stands on Woodward. When I discovered leather bars, I assumed they had been there all along and didn’t know I was witnessing history in the making. I eventually went to Portland, Ore. for some of the early National Leather Association conferences, which opened my eyes to all that leather people, and a growing community and their greatly varied lifestyles, could possibly be.
This is why I was excited to be part of the forming of LIFE-Detroit, and feel it is an important element of our communities offering positive introductions to what alternatives and lifestyle choices individuals can make.
5) How do you combat negative stigma about the leather community?
It was a major accomplishment when the American Psychiatric Association declared that gay people can be just as well adjusted as straight people. In 1994, the APA quietly stopped including those enjoying leather activities as inherently having mental health problems, which was a huge change that most people (including many in our health care system) have yet to know, believe or accept.
I believe there are great parallels between the gay and leather communities, but a lack of communication and basic understanding has left us with as nearly as great a divide as between the straight and gay worlds.
This is where I believe LIFE-Detroit can continue to be an important ‘change agent’ for everyone’s sake, especially for the individuals who come to not only appreciate their differences, but live them in healthy and passionate ways.
For more information, visit http://www.LIFE-Detroit.com.