When he won the title of Mr. Los Angeles Leather in 2014, Eric Paul Leue had no idea that a few months later he would find himself in the employ of Kink.com — one of the largest and most successful BDSM porn companies in the world.
"Really, the leather title is the only reason I got the job," Leue says. Sitting at his boyfriend's kitchen table in the North Hollywood neighborhood, Leue says that in the world of leather, it is customary for title-holders to use their platforms to raise funds for chosen causes. As soon as he took home the title, Leue knew he would use it to tell more people about PrEP.
While he's certainly done that as director for sexual health and advocacy at Kink.com, Leue is also a staunch advocate for sexual openness in general, working to dismantle sexual stigma and shame that puts people of all identities and orientations at risk.
"Public education is going to wipe out stigma," Leue says confidently. “It is the antidote to latent homophobia and HIV stigma all over the country. When people are presented with information, they will learn."
Leue has taken an active role in educating the public, writing most recently for Poz and Vice in his characteristic voice: intense and anaphoric, with all the markings of a strong orator. The 29-year-old sports a full blond beard, bright blue eyes, and a large silver septum piercing. He grew up in Berlin, and although he speaks English perfectly, his words echo with a distinct sharpness.
Leue’s introduction to the world of kink came early. By the time he was 18, he was already familiar with Berlin's notorious leather scene, with its many darkrooms and sex dungeons. “I met my first kink mentor when I was 14,” Leue says. “When I was 18, I lost him to AIDS.”
As happens with many gay and bi men of a certain age, that mentor was far from the only person Leue lost during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic. The experience has informed Leue's dogged advocacy for pre-exposure prophylaxis, better known as PrEP, a revolutionary means of preventing HIV transmission.
People who take Truvada, the only drug approved so far for use as PrEP, as directed are more protected from HIV than with diligent condom use; PrEP has proven to be 99 percent effective at preventing HIV infection, regardless of whether a condom is used. A study published this September found that among 600 gay and bisexual men on PrEP, not a single new case of HIV was reported in more than two years of study.
But in the three years since the Food and Drug Administration first approved Gilead's Truvada as PrEP, it has sparked widespread controversy. Leue vividly remembers what inspired him to become a prevention warrior in what he calls the “PrEP wars.”
“In April 2014, Michael Weinstein, the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, called PrEP a party drug,” Leue says. “When I read his comments, I remember thinking that this is the epitome of everything wrong in this country. His statements completely ignored medical data and would miseducate people. So I wrote my article 'Why I Started a Petition to Remove the Head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation' for The Huffington Post. That got a lot of attention.”
Of course, Leue is no stranger to controversial topics long deemed taboo by mainstream society. His job places him squarely at the center of several such discussions — about porn, PrEP, and alternative sexual lifestyles like those featured at Kink.com.
Nevertheless, Leue says his primary focus is on something admittedly less sexy: public education. In that area, he is most focused on policy changes that invovle sexual health. He applauds California Gov. Jerry Brown's recent signature on Assembly Bill 329, which requires all public schools to provide culturally competent sexual health education to their students.
“So the kids going to school next year will start learning this," he explains excitedly. "What’s sad is that this is only happening in 2015. So when we hear about the atrocities happening to black and Latino trans women at the United States border, we should ask, how have the people working there been culturally trained? Where is their cultural competency training?”
Leue is keenly aware of the struggles many LGBT people face when attempting to immigrate to the U.S.
"As an immigrant, one of the things I loved about this country was its perceived diversity," says Leue, who first visited the U.S. in 2000, returned on a student visa in 2004, then became a full-time U.S. resident in 2013. "The current anti-immigrant stance held by certain members of the GOP is worrying, because it goes against what this country is at its core, which is a nation of immigrants."
And that demonizing rhetoric isn't helping health advocates reach the most at-risk individuals, many of whom are black, Latino, undocumented, or transgender. Improved sexual health education in states like California will help spread awareness of PrEP, Leue contends, but it still won't guarantee that those who need it will be able to access it.
"One problem that HIV and AIDS activists are focused on right now is getting PrEP to black and Latino communities, which are disproportionately affected by HIV," Leue explains. "My biggest personal concern is that a lot of these communities face a lack of equity. They lack the financial means to get PrEP.”
“I believe the biggest health care problems we face right now can be rooted to financial inequality,” Leue continues. “There’s a reason why PrEP gets talked about the most among rich white gay men, and is almost unheard of among populations that need it most, and who have the least amount of financial access to it. It’s because we're looking at 200 years in which the African-American and Latino communities of this country have been disproportionately poor.”
Indeed, recent studies show that in 2011, the median white household had $111,000 in wealth holdings (real estate, savings, etc.), while the median African-American household had $7,000 and the median Latino household had $8,000, according to Forbes.
Leue tackles these issues with the schedule of a budding politician. For World AIDS Day last year, Leue spent two weeks traveling to Palm Springs, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta to speak on PrEP panels.
As someone who manages to advocate for PrEP, public education, and the abolition of sexual shame while jet-setting from Kink.com's headquarters in San Francisco — in a 200,000-square-foot castle-like building known as "The Armory" — around the country, Leue is particularly frustrated about the intrasigence of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
“They used $7 million to lobby and politicize issues like condoms in porn," he says. "I work for an award-winning porn company that takes every precaution and always tests its models, and that pays me to talk about PrEP. Imagine $7 million that could have been given to the Latino community here in L.A. County.”
Leue says that many who are against PrEP, like AHF's Weinstein, believe taking a drug for HIV prevention will encourage riskier behavior among gay men. The Advocate debunked that claim last year during the award-winning "31 Days of PrEP" series.
But more than simply being unfounded, Leue suggests this refusal to acknowledge the good PrEP does amounts to a denial of reality:
“The beauty of PrEP is that it address the reality that people will not always use condoms. Condoms have been the battle cry of HIV and AIDS for 30 years, and statistics show it hasn’t been successful. So why not address the reality that people slip up, and celebrate a treatment regimen that is more reliable? People should still be getting tested for other infections and making safe decisions. PrEP just adds an extra layer of protection against HIV.”
Beyond that extra layer of protection, Leue is confident that PrEP will accomplish something bigger in the long run: it will help eliminate HIV stigma.
“For years, we’ve made [HIV-positive] guys the ones responsible for safe sex, and if a transmission happens, it’s their fault," he says. "That mentality has been a harsh but unavoidable burden on poz people, and is the reason many still choose to only date other poz people. With PrEP, an HIV-negative person can now more equally share the responsibility. Going forward, PrEP will make it so that we are all responsible for preventing HIV, and as more people get on the drug, we will all be helping end it.”