Dallas’ gay community shows America who’s boss in leather and literature with two local luminaries. Can we hear an ‘Amen’?
Let’s admit it: Texas, and Dallas in particular, has always been pretty full of itself. J.R. Ewing. "America’s Team." Hell, one of our mottos is "Don’t mess with Texas."
But as the saying goes, "It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true."
So here are a few truths: In a five-day period last month, two Dallasites, appearing separately in Chicago and New York, received two of the biggest honors in the national gay community — albeit in very different fields.
On Sunday, May 24, Jeffrey Payne defeated 53 other leathermen from as far away as Germany to be named International Mr. Leather 2009.
Four days later, Dallas journo Jenny Block (who, full disclosure, is a regular contributor to Dallas Voice) received the Lambda Literary Award for best bisexual book "Open" at a gala in New York City.
Brawn and brains.
No wonder Dallas is full of itself.
And no wonder our gay community is the biggest — and, we’ll say it, best — in the state.
Here’s how they got to the winners’ circles.
King of Payne
How’s this for luck: After only five years in the leather community — and only two in Dallas — a man enters three leatherman contests and wins each … including International Mr. Leather, the big daddy for big daddies.
Luck my ass.
"It is a perfect record," concedes Jeffrey Payne. "But I will stop. I will never enter another one, I can firmly state that. Now starts the work."
Payne has everything going for him that, say, Carrie Prejean doesn’t: A compelling story (Katrina survivor), a winning personality (everyone says what a nice guy he is), a commanding physical presence and a welcoming attitude.
Still, it took some convincing before Payne agreed to step on his first runway.
"There was a great amount of thought that went into it — I had to have my partner’s buy-in," he says. "We talked to former titleholders and those in the community to make sure this was the journey I wanted to take. I didn’t want to just be running around with a sash on; I wanted to represent the community in a positive light."
A lot of the support came from his husband, David, whom Payne calls "a great cheerleader." Still it was not mere platitudes of a loved one that persuaded him, but the reasons behind it.
"He said, ‘You’re very humble about it, but you have worked your whole life at making sure everyone has a voice. Start inspiring more people to reach these goals. You have the opportunity to step up to the plate."
The first step was Mr. Dallas Eagle, which Payne entered in December — and won. That led to Mr. Texas Leather in February — again, victory.
"It was truly one step at a time," he says. I did not worry about Mr. Texas Leather until after Mr. Dallas Eagle, and I didn’t worry about IML until after Mr. Texas Leather. Worrying too much about something that may not come to fruition is not good time management," he says.
But International Mr. Leather? The organization has been around more than 30 years, drawing contestants from Europe and Asia — 54 in all. What were Payne’s chances among the best of the best?
"I’ll be honest: I went to win. I didn’t go not to win," he says. That meant months of planning: mock interviews, prep questions from friends and fellow leathermen (Payne had never even attended IML before), staying in shape for the "Pecs & Personality" section of the pageant (where all contestants appear in leather jockstraps and answer questions).
And working diligently on his speech, which he rewrote at the last minute. Payne, who is hearing impaired, had just learned he would be completely deaf within a few years.
"It was not the kind of speech that got people to stand up and cheer but it was real," he says. And being real is, ultimately, what put him over.
"I just felt that if I showed up and was true to myself and what my beliefs were — as hokey as that sounds — I could win. I had to tell my journey and how it got me to where I am today. It was very close, I do know that — it was not a runaway. Anyone could have been up there that night," he says.
As it turns out, Payne didn’t even know until the last night of the weekend-long competition that he was in the top 20; the pool isn’t whittled down any further until they reveal the first and second runners-up and the winner.
Even with his hearing aids, Payne couldn’t actually hear the list of finalists. "They made the announcement and I could not hear it so I just stood there applauding. Then I saw the sign interpreter sign ’11,’ which was my number. I looked down to make sure it still was. Then people turned to me. It was a very Miss America moment — I covered my face with my hands and was in total shock. They kinda had to guide me to where I needed to go and get you to the podium. Then — pandemonium," he says.
Payne was so exhausted after the event, he had to spend days recovering from the flu immediately. "There is so much that goes into it that all of us were running on adrenaline," he says.
Payne takes his new role seriously. He has resigned from his corporate day job to spend the next year traveling as leather’s top ambassador.
"It’s a personal choice on how I wanted to handle it — they do not expect you to. But I see this as an opportunity that I can do the most good if I don’t have the stress of work behind me. My boss is very understanding and she knows I give 110 percent to whatever I’m doing."
"The reaction from the Dallas community has been extremely positive. I’m proud to bring the title back to Dallas and Texas. It is an honor and I treat it as such."
Payne’s award came on May 24 in Chicago; just four days later, in New York City, a fellow Dallasite whom he had never met would receive her own kind of accolade.
Jenny on the Block
You’d expect a book with a title like "Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage" to get tongues wagging and attract attention. But Dallas writer Jenny Block, who wrote "Open," never imagined she’d win a top literary award for it. Especially because the book almost didn’t happen.
It was due to the publisher in October 2007, and by August, Block was in a panic about finishing it. "I actually had a bit of a breakdown and began to consider how I might be able to get out of the contract," she says. "But then my girlfriend talked me down out of the tree and back into my desk chair."
The hardback edition came out in June 2008; the paperback last March.
And then in May, Block received the Lambda Literary Award for best book about bisexuality.
Block didn’t even know the book had been submitted for consideration by her publisher until she learned of the nomination through, of all things, a Google alert.
"I was thrilled when I was announced as a finalist. It gave me a sense of validation that felt really good. I have gotten plenty of good reviews, but I have also gotten my share of lousy ones. Honestly, it made me feel like a real writer," she says.
Still, winning seemed like a pipedream.
Like most authors, Block secretly hoped to be on the New York Times best seller list and an Oprah Book Club selection, and to get a movie deal. But how many people really believe that will happen? Just as important to Block as getting out her message.
"I want to be a voice for people who don’t have one when it comes to loving who they want and forming relationships how they want. I want to write and I want to tell the truth about the ways we really do live and love as opposed to continuing the propagation of the silly, empty fairytales that plague us," she says.
Block decided she had to attend the ceremony, even if she thought her chances were slim.
"I honestly and truly did not think I would win. My category had some heavy-hitters in it and I worked hard to convince myself that being a finalist was big enough. But I wanted it. Badly. How could I not? I told the universe, ‘This is what I want’ while at the same time preparing my ‘Oh, I’m so excited you won because you deserved it’ face as if I would be at the Oscars or something," she says.
She bought tickets to the event but it wasn’t until she made her plane reservations two weeks before that she really knew she’d go. It would be much ado about nothing if she lost, but "I wanted to be there if I won."
Block, a true girly-girl, decided if she was gonna do it, she was gonna do it right.
"I wore a shamelessly low cut, loose fitting black dress — a simple A-line piece with pockets that I had picked up at Nordstrom a few months earlier — and a pair of four-inch white patent leather stilettos," she says.
Despite all the prep, they barely made it to the ceremony. The flight was delayed 90 minutes and they delayed further by grabbing a slice and looking for new shoes for Block’s girlfriend, who joined her at the event.
"Then we dawdled in our gorgeous suite at the Smythe Tribeca. I finally got in the shower and when we finally got in a cab, it was raining and there was all of this construction. It took forever to get there. I was being awful — mean and grumpy and irritable. I’m a whole lot of fun when I’m nervous."
But all the stress and denial and wardrobe issues turned out to be worth it when Block’s name was called as the winner, defeating such notables as Edmund White.
"I don’t think I’ve ever been any more shocked," she recounts. "I froze. I was shaking my head and smiling and trying not to cry. I finally made it to the stage. It took forever."
Block was so flustered, she could barely squeak out an acceptance speech (she failed to mention her husband but did name her girlfriend — you have to read the book).
"It was short and I wished desperately that I had written something just in case, but everyone told me it came off as really genuine and sweet. I kept tearing up and looking at the award and my girlfriend was just beaming and squeezing my hand. The people sitting near me congratulated me. I tried to just be present, you know? To really enjoy the moment. It was over in a flash and it took a week to really sink in that I won."
Now that it has sunk in, and Block has had time to consider what it really means to her.
"Winning was validation. It also meant receiving a lovely crystal book with my name engraved on it that I love to look at!" she says. "It means leverage for my next book. I hope it means more press. More readers. More writing gigs. You know, all good things and all in their due time."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2009.