I recently interviewed Tony Mills MD for the Leather Pride issue of The Fight Magazine. Doctor Mills has had a medical practice devoted to holistic healthcare that focuses on nutrition, exercise and the wellness of gay men since 1999. With over 5,000 men under his care—half of who are HIV positive—he’s developed one of the largest clinical research centers in Southern California for HIV, hepatitis, and he’s done work in other health areas such developing natural products that are beneficial to overall wellbeing, but despite Dr. Mills’ many accomplishments in the medical field, to many in the gay leather community, he will always be International Mr. Leather 1998.
So tell us about your title?
I was International Mr. Leather in 1998.
And that’s the big one right?
Yes, it’s considered probably the biggest one. You have to win another title to get to compete in International Mr. Leather and I was Mr. Mid Atlantic Leather that same year. That was the Feeder Contest and I went on to win IML.
Did you think you had that certain pedigree to compete?
That’s funny. I guess in retrospect I had a pedigree. I didn’t really realize it at the time. But you know in our community, it’s really about who are your influences, and who are the people you know, and who do you have a relationship with, and who’s helped you to learn, and to grow, and to become the person that you are. I think those are the things that really led me to be or even have the desire to compete and also certainly led me to win the title.
When you compete is it like a beauty pageant?
It’s a contest, it’s really not a beauty pageant. Looking over the roster of winners, certainly beauty wasn’t always the number one criteria. They do have a physique competition, but it’s really more about being comfortable in your own skin. It’s not about the most handsome or the most in shape. If you’re going to be a big hairy bear, be a big hairy bear. If you’re going to be a thin hairless Latino, then stand up and be proud of it. That’s really what the leather community about is for me, it’s about being comfortable in your skin, it’s about acceptance. And that’s really what the contest is about. They’re trying to find people who are proud of who they are and proud about being part of the community, who are willing to share that with the people who are still in the developmental stages of all of that.
What are some of your obligations as International Mr. Leather
The International Mr. Leather in particular has a very rigorous schedule. I wasn’t working at the time, so that was really a blessing in a lot of ways because it enabled me to really fulfill my obligations and to take advantage of the things that were offered to me. It’s really about being an ambassador for the leather community. With that title you get the ability to travel around and meet people, not just all over the country, but all over the world. It’s an amazing opportunity, so if you have the ability to do it every weekend, you can be somewhere else in the world every weekend.
What are some of the most memorable moments during your, umm reign?
One of the things that I did that was most memorable is I got to be the Grand Marshal for the gay parade in Amsterdam that was going on at the time of the Gay Games in Amsterdam, which I never would have had to opportunity to do otherwise. It was my first time riding on a barge and being the grand marshal of a parade.
So you got your own parade.
I think the thing that I look back on most that enjoyed was the ability to connect with people. Especially living in Los Angeles where we sometimes find it very difficult to connect. An IML—or any title really–gives you that opportunity to connect. It gives people a reason to talk to you and what you do with that is really yours. You can dummy up, or you can suit up and show up and I really looked at it as this great opportunity to meet a whole variety of people all over world that I might not have contact with before or again. When I run into people who I met within the course of the year, they tend to remember that I met them and I looked in their eye and I asked them about them, because that was really what I loved to do.
Are your friends impressed by that title?
Probably a big chunk of my friends don’t even know about it [laughs]. The amusing thing is, it will always be some older conservative doctor from Cedars, who will sometimes ask me, ‘Hey, what’s this whole thing about Mr. International Leather?’ It’s certainly out there on the web and people find out about it. It becomes a part of who you are moving forward.
You were HIV positive when you competed, correct?
I was diagnosed back in ’87. I was doing my medical training at the time and I kind of didn’t really know what to do with it. My physician at the time who is still a close friend of mine said, do you wanna go on disability and go back home to live with your family in South Carolina and I said no, all I ever wanted to be was a doctor, so if I’m strong enough and healthy enough to do that, that’s what I want to do. So I went forward with it it. He said, ‘I don’t think this is necessarily the healthiest thing for you to do,’ which was stay up all night long the third night and work as hard as you have to work. I was very fortunate, I was in good health and stayed very healthy until about 1996 when I woke up in the middle of the night and the bed was soaked. I had a high fever and I thought, oh yeah, HIV, I forgot. I was very fortunate that it happened at a time we had just figured out triple combination therapy. My t-cells were low and my viral load was high. The initial combination didn’t work, but then I was put on protease inhibitors and it worked. My viral load was undetectable and my t-cells started to climb.
Around the time period I got sick, I lost weight. When your doctor tells you to go get your affairs in order, you get worried about that, so I sort of tried to do everything I could to take care of myself I started working out more regularly and eating better and pushing the protein and so then when my numbers started to get better, I was looking better as well. Then I thought, I wonder if people know that you don’t have to look sick just because you have HIV. That was really the message that I wanted to take and that is why I competed for Mid Atlanta Mr. Leather and I competed in International Mr. Leather. It was 1998, it was just a couple of years, we had just figured out how the medications worked and I really just wanted to carry the message that you can’t assume that someone is HIV positive because they look good, you need to talk to people about their status and just because you’re living with HIV doesn’t mean that you can’t look good. You can take care of yours self and we were optimistic that there was a bright future ahead, we didn’t know it was going to be quite as bright as it has been, but we were still optimistic.
It must’ve felt like a death sentence.
Yes it really was. The only drug we had at the time was AZT and they only used AZT if people’s t-cell counts were I think about 500, mine were already about 350, so essentially they said, number one: you have HIV. And number two: you’re too far gone for even this experimental treatment we have. There really wasn’t much to do except try to take care of yourself and hope for the best.
Were you open about your HIV status when you competed at IML?
I was, yes.
What was the response to that?
I think people were overall very positive about it. I think it was at a particular moment where…after having gone through this incredibly dark period, really for almost two decades, when HIV was uniformly fatal and everyone really felt like it was a death sentence and to suddenly be at the crest of an era where there was hope. I think that’s why I really wanted to be so open about it. I think it’s correlated to people being accepting of gay people is knowing someone who’s gay. It’s the same thing with HIV. At the time a lot of people were very positive about their HIV status. I wanted to be really open about it, because I wanted people to say, wow, it’s OK.
Are you active in the leather community now?
I’m not as active as I have been in the past. I passed that baton to younger guys. I feel like I still do my part. I’m participating in the leather contest this year. I always try to give back to the community whenever I’m asked to do something like that. I think I carry the lessons that I learned and the contacts that I made and the friendships that I made through my time as International Mr. Leather to my practice today. I have people who come to see me from all over the world really because I’m International Mr. Leather and they feel like they can come and talk to me about who they are and what they do and they know they won’t be judged and I’ll accept them. I’ll treat them fairly and that’s a big deal for people. I feel like I’m selectively engaged in the leather community in my own way.
Is there a divide between HIV positive guys and HIV negative guys in the leather community?
I think maybe less in the leather community than in the general gay community because the leather community is always based on acceptance. There may still be some preferences as far as you know cero sorting and wanting to have sexual contact with people who are of the cero status. I think it’s a little easier for people to be open about that in the leather community, maybe because, not just myself, but countless other leather men have been open about their status over the years, so I think people have learned to not judge and to accept.
How do you think leather guys approach safe sex?
Leather men and leather women are very creative. For us it’s always been about more than just the sexual act itself. I think for people are positive, even during that time when there was still a fair amount of fear, there were a lot of things that you could do in the leather community that were erotic and exciting and fun and new and bonding with the partner that you were with that didn’t put you at risk, so I think in some ways the leather community was really on the forefront of safe sex. There are lots and lots of things that people do in the leather community that don’t run any risk of HIV transmission.
What should someone expect at their first IML competition?
The thing that I love about leather events is the camaraderie. I think people are warm and they’re open. You see a whole variety of people, so you’ll see some people whose physique and beauty might be intimidating and you see somebody else who makes you feel much more comfortable about who you are and so I think each of these people bring this things to the table, so again it’s not a beauty contest. It’s not where the most handsome fittest guy is going to win. These guys are competing on a whole variety of levels. A lot of it has to do with their own inner personal acceptance with who they are and their commitment to the leather community. How do you show your commitment? Don’t just say that you’re committed. Show me the money. Show me how you reach out and help other young gay men who are struggling with their sexuality, find their place and feel comfortable. I think that’s what really makes a leather man. Those are the things that people will really be looking at.
Can you tell us a little about your practice.
I think that we have a large practice, we take care about 5,000 men. Half are positive, half are negative. I love that. Gay men’s health is kind of my specialty. I feel like I’ve evolved into sort of a family doctor for gay couples. I take care of lots of gay couples and the kids of gay couples. That’s really fun and exciting. I have that part of the practice, which to me is sort of warm, and fuzzy and personal. And then we have clinical research part of the practice that is very exciting. I thought the reason I went into medicine is because I wanted to be on the edge. I really love scientific advancement, so get that from the research. Taking care of HIV patients and hepatitis patients over the years, I didn’t want to have to send them to someone else after I had developed a relationship with them, to get cutting edge care. So we thought we would develop that here. We have probably one of the largest clinical research centers in Southern California. We do extremely good work. And we certainly do lots of work in HIV and hepatitis, but we also do lots of work in other men’s health areas. You know, cholesterol, we’re looking at some natural products that are beneficial for cardiovascular risk. We’ve got studies that deal with sexually transmitted infections. We do a lot of hormone replacement studies, other testosterone gel preparations, so we’re really focused on overall men’s health and wellness. I’d like to think about the practice is that people can come here whether they’re positive or negative. Whether they’re leather men living on the edge or conservative preppy guys and feel like they found a place where they’re home and well taken care of where they can certainly get great and the highest level of medical care. And if they need something investigatory that is cutting edge. We can offer them that as well.