Leather family mourns ’Mister Marcus’

  • by Robert Nesti, EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
  • Monday October 19, 2009
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Mourners from San Francisco and beyond have paused to pay their respects to Marcus Hernandez, the Bay Area Reporter's longtime leather columnist who died last week.

In one fitting tribute, the leather flag will be flown at half-staff at Castro and Market was lowered from Thursday through Saturday..

In another, the leather contingent at last weekend's National Equality March carried a banner in remembrance of Mr. Hernandez.

Mr. Hernandez died Thursday, October 8 at Pacifica Nursing and Rehab Center in Pacifica. He was 77.

The cause of death was complications from diabetes and arteriosclerosis.

Mr. Hernandez was known to his legions of readers by his pen name "Mister Marcus" and dubbed the "dean of leather columnists." His weekly columns of contest goings-on and gossip were a must-read for leather community leaders, titleholders, and newcomers alike for 38 years.

Mr. Hernandez had been hospitalized since the summer, when his health condition worsened.

He was surrounded by friends at the time of his death; one of his sons had traveled from North Carolina to be at his bedside for several days last week.

"Mr. Marcus has been a San Francisco institution for decades," said B.A.R. publisher Thomas E. Horn. "He unapologetically brought his message of pride for the LGBT community in general and his beloved leather community in particular not only to San Francisco but to all the United States and even the world.

"Words cannot express our feeling of loss here at the Bay Area Reporter. His determination, sardonic wit, and compassion have sustained us through the ups and the downs of these last many years. When Bob Ross died in 2003, Marcus became the patriarch of the B.A.R. family. We will miss him terribly," Horn added, referring to the paper's founding publisher.

Other staff at the newspaper were saddened by news of his passing.

"Marcus was an outrageous character who never failed to either shock or infuriate people with his quick wit or sarcasm," B.A.R. general manager Mike Yamashita said. "His clever irreverence always left me laughing uncontrollably. He had a difficult side too, but those of us who knew him well knew that he was always motivated by his commitment to and love of the leather community at large. He was an LGBT pioneer whose contributions over the decades will never be fully known or appreciated. I truly will miss his humor and friendship."

Former assistant arts editor Mark Mardon, who edited Mr. Hernandez's columns for many years, also mourned his passing.

"As a veteran columnist for the B.A.R. whose work had immense reach across the continent, he profoundly influenced the leather/BDSM subculture, its ethics, traditions, lore, and fundraising prowess," Mardon said. "His smart, often sarcastic, but deeply caring column shone a light on a culture that had long been demonized and suppressed by mainstream gay and straight cultures, yet he brought it respect and showed that leather people are among the most dedicated to their tribe, the most caring and committed, hardest working, and most successful at supporting their community through bad times and good."

The Reverend Curt Hernandez, one of Mr. Hernandez's four sons, was at his bedside last week. The younger Hernandez, who was only 5 years old when Mr. Hernandez left his wife Marian Givens Hernandez in 1960, said that he did not see his father again until 2006. The couple had married in 1952 and had a stormy relationship; Curt Hernandez said that his mother and father met in Washington, D.C., where both worked at the Pentagon.

"You only have one mother and one father," Curt Hernandez said last week, "and my decision was to love my father."

Curt Hernandez, who serves as a youth minister in North Carolina, talked briefly about the difficult journey he and his brothers experienced after their mother died in the mid-1980s. The siblings had no idea if their father was alive or not, and it was only after obtaining information from their late mother's family that Mr. Hernandez's eldest son, Greg, wrote to him in 1987. Greg later came to San Francisco to meet his father, and was surprised to discover Mr. Hernandez was gay, although he didn't directly come out to Greg.

"He never would come out and tell me he was gay," Greg Hernandez said in a phone interview this week. "But it was part of what he alluded to. We were a little shocked."

Mostly, Greg Hernandez said it was a shame that Mr. Hernandez "didn't get a chance to know what we became as adults."

"I'm sorry for that for him," Greg Hernandez said.

Mr. Hernandez began communicating with two of his sons, including Curt, who came to San Francisco to see him in 2006.

Greg Hernandez said that the four brothers remain close.

"We've all done well in spite of what didn't happen in our childhood," Greg Hernandez said. "I'm not bitter about him, I feel bad that he didn't want to make an effort when we reached out."

Early life

Mr. Hernandez, whose first name was Gilbert, was born March 22, 1932 in Los Angeles. He served in the U.S. Air Force from August 1954 until he was honorably discharged in August 1960. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles but did not receive a degree.

Following the breakup of his marriage, Mr. Hernandez moved to San Francisco in 1968, according to a 1996 interview he gave to Jack Rinella for the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. Vice cops in Los Angeles, where he had been living, were arresting gay men and raiding gay bars, Mr. Hernandez recalled, and a friend suggested he move north. That was also the year he came out, his son Curt Hernandez said.

"So in 1968 ... I moved here. And the only bar I knew about was the Tool Box because in the 1960s, Life magazine ran this huge article on homosexuality in America and they had a picture in there of the Tool Box with a pair of white sneakers hanging down saying, ’Not allowed,’" Mr. Hernandez recalled. "It was a subject of disdain to be wearing white sneakers in a leather bar."

Mr. Hernandez worked in various leather bars for 12 years as a manager.

He also served as the appointment secretary for then-Mayor Joseph Alioto.

It was around that time, in the early 1970s, that Mr. Hernandez wrote a column for the Advocate, which at the time was a gay newspaper. In October 1971, just six months after the B.A.R. started publishing, Mr. Hernandez was asked by Ross to write the paper’s leather column.

Mr. Hernandez’s column has focused primarily on the calendar of contests in the leather community. He also served as a judge at an estimated 250 contests over the years, he told the B.A.R. in an interview last month.

Part of the enjoyment in writing his weekly column was that he viewed it as a platform by which to educate non-leather members of the LGBT community.

"I’m trying to help people see that it’s not what people perceived it to be - queens pissing on each other," Mr. Hernandez told the B.A.R. "The thing was, you do your thing, I’ll do mine and no one gets hurt."

"There still are people who feel leather is kinky stuff," he added.

Colleen Small, who knew Mr. Hernandez for 18 years and coordinated medical care for him in recent months, said he helped her establish herself in the leather community.

"I met him when I ran for a contest, he was sitting there, and then he put my name in the paper," Small said. "I was working for the post office at the time and said I can’t have my name in the paper, so I came up with ’Queen Cougar.’"

That moniker stuck, and is today how Small is best known by the community.

"He liked me from the start," Small said.

Small was named Ms. San Francisco Leather in 1993 and it was around that time that Mr. Hernandez "adopted" her as his daughter.

"He became the father that I really didn’t have," Small said. "He really loved other leather women and that was an important thing to the leather community because the leather community was so male-focused."

His comfort with leather women, Small added, led to the community becoming more inclusive of leather women through contests and other social activities.

His columns occasionally had a bitter edge, but that’s what helped keep the community honest, friends and colleagues said.

"He had a biting, funny style and a distinctive high-pitched voice, which led some of us to occasionally tease him about not really being a top (he insisted he was), but he took it all in stride," Mardon recalled.

Scott Peterson, manager of the Powerhouse bar, said last month that Mr. Hernandez’s columns kept the community informed.

"He’s always been able to keep it fairly dishy and provocative, and let us know what is happening across the nation," he said.

That was especially true in the days before the Internet and blogs. Still, Mr. Hernandez’s column was one of the most popular features on ebar.com, and he would receive news items from leather folks around the world.

Mr. Hernandez leaves behind a trove of papers and other materials. His longtime friend Audrey Joseph said that some of the items would remain in San Francisco.

"Some of his stuff will go to the archives in Chicago, the rest will stay here and go to the GLBT Historical Society," Joseph said, referring to the Leather Archives and Museum. "I hope to be able to do a showing within a year of his greatest memorabilia here in SF and of course the B.A.R. will be a significant part of that."

Joseph said she would miss her dear friend.

"Marcus was direct and honest and never apologized for his community - whether leather, [Imperial] court or general gay population - he was a warrior for equal rights for all of us - compassion by and for all of us - he championed the truth," she said.

Cornelius Washington, a leather-fetish photographer who moved to San Francisco in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, called Mr. Hernandez "the one consistent seam of the leather-fetish community."

"The man with the sharpest tongue and the biggest heart," Washington added.

Even those whom Mr. Hernandez criticized offered heartfelt condolences.

San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who was an occasional target of Mr. Hernandez’s because he didn’t attend leather events as frequently as his predecessor Mark Leno, said that the ribbing he took from the columnist made him "think continually of the leather community."

"He made me a better person and more conscious of leather," Dufty, who is running for mayor in 2011, told the B.A.R. "Whether he liked me or not, he gave me a sense of understanding."

Dufty recalled that he intervened with the police department when a new leather bar, Chaps, opened on Folsom Street last year. Amazingly, he said, some of the personnel charged with issuing permits had never heard of a leather bar.

Leno, now a state senator, said he was "deeply saddened" by Mr. Hernandez’s death.

"Mister Marcus led a long and colorful life within the local and national LGBT community as a prolific and popular writer," Leno said in a statement. "He often used his column to promote LGBT causes and highlight the work of the leather community. He also was a regular fixture at events raising funds and awareness for people living with HIV and AIDS. Mister Marcus was a wonderful character whose spirited personality will be missed in our community. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends as they mourn his passing and remember his well-lived life."

Mr. Hernandez also used his column to help many nonprofits, including the AIDS Emergency Fund, which provides cash grants to people living with disabling HIV/AIDS so that they can pay rent, utilities, and other expenses. AEF was started in the leather community, as the epidemic hit leathermen hard in San Francisco.

In addition to his involvement in the leather community, Mr. Hernandez also was part of the Imperial Court of San Francisco, a charitable organization. Jose Sarria, a.k.a. the Widow Norton, was the first Empress of San Francisco in 1965. In 1972, the Imperial Court added the title of emperor, and Mr. Hernandez was the first one. His empress was Maxine.

Mr. Hernandez often recounted the story of his election as emperor, which also occurred while he worked for Alioto.

One of the first things that came to his mind was, "How am I going to face the mayor?" Mr. Hernandez recalled last month.

The San Francisco Examiner had his photo on the front page, he said, and the event was featured on local news programs.

"So the follow-up was the mayor," Mr. Hernandez said. "Monday morning I go to my office and I am at my desk and he walks in and says, ’Well, I see I am not the only celebrity in this office.’ And I said, ’No, your honor, I guess you are not.’"

Small said that while Mr. Hernandez was estranged from his biological family for many years, "he encouraged a familial energy with the people that he loved."

In addition to countless friends and his leather family, Mr. Hernandez is survived by his four sons: Greg Hernandez of Overland Park, Kansas; Curt Hernandez of High Point, North Carolina; and Tracy Hernandez and Shawn Hernandez, both of Jefferson City, Missouri; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

The Alexander Hamilton Post 448 of the American Legion will hold an "everlasting" ceremony for Mr. Hernandez tonight (October 15) at 7 p.m. prior to its regular meeting. Post Commander John Forrett said the ceremony will honor Mr. Hernandez’s service and transfer him from the Post 48 roster to Post Everlasting.

"The community is welcome to attend," Forrett said in an e-mail message.

A memorial to celebrate Mr. Hernandez’s life is planned for Saturday, November 21 at 1 p.m. at City Nights, 715 Harrison Street in San Francisco.

Members of the leather contingent at Sunday’s National Equality March hold a banner remembering B.A.R. columnist Marcus Hernandez. Photo: Justin B. Smith

In addition to his involvement with the leather community, Marcus Hernandez was active in the San Francisco Imperial Court, and was elected Emperor I After Norton in 1972.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].