Interview with Brian Helander

Albuquerque, New Mexico on October 21, 2017 | Interviewer: Becca Scofield

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Rebecca Scofield: This is Rebecca Scofiled and I am here with Brian Helander and it is October 21st 2017 and we are at the World Gay Rodeo Finals in Albuquerque New Mexico. So could you tell me when you were born?
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Brian Helander: I was born [in]1954.
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RS: Where?
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BH: In Teulon, Manitoba, Canada.
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RS: And, what was it like growing up there?
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BH: Well... I didn't know any better so it was pretty good.
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RS: Pretty rural?
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BH: It was, we didn't, we ultimately moved to the the big city, Winnipeg so we moved to the big city. My dad became a milkman, the kind that carried milk to your door.
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RS: And when did you make that move?
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BH: I guess that was 3 or 4.
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RS: So did you spend most of your youth in Winnipeg?
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BH: Yes.
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RS: And what was it like growing up there?
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BH: Well, I didn't know any better so it was pretty good. I thought it was completely normal. It was a rough, a harsh life, winters were harsh. My mom and dad had 5 kids and my dad was a milk man so, it was not an easy life. We didn't have a car. I still to this day don't know how my mother got groceries to the house, enough for 7 people without a car.
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RS: So where are you in the 5?
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BH: I'm the second oldest.
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RS: How big were ranges there in ages?
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BH: Well they were pretty close together, older brother a year older, younger sister couple years younger, and a couple years younger, and then a couple years younger.
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RS: So did you help raise any of those babies or?
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BH: Well I wouldn't say that. My mom was pretty good at that. She was a stay at home mom, so she did a pretty good job of raising the kids.
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RS: And, what was school life like for you?
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BH: I was not a very good student. I was distracted by other things. I tell people--I teach now--and I tell people that are my students I was a D student on a good day, an F student on most days, except when the teachers took pity on me and made me a D student, just to pass me along. And that continued until I found my current profession and then I became an A+ student.
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RS: What were you distracted by?
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BH: Just the family life. 5 kids, and no money, and all the stuff that goes along with no breakfast, and no lunch, and hopefully dinner.
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RS: Did you work at all when you were young?
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BH: I started to work when I was about 14.
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RS: What did you do?
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BH: Well, by that time my father was a bus driver. And I actually got a pretty good job counting. Sitting on the corner, basically on a trailer box, counting empty seats on buses, or estimating number of passengers on buses. It was actually a fairly good paying job. So, I did that.
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RS: What was the purpose of estimating?
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BH: So they could plan the routing, see if they needed more buses to come by or if the buses were overloaded or underloaded. So I manually tallied up. I knew that a bus was...maybe held, say, 30 people, and if I saw 3 people standing I estimated 33 people on the bus.
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RS: And Winnepeg is it a very big city?
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BH: Yeah it's a big city, capital of Manitoba, Canada.
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RS: Where would you have lived right in the center of the city or out in the suburbs?
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BH: We lived in the suburbs.
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RS: After highschool did you go to college?
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BH: I did go to college. I wanted to be an astronaut. I... didn't have the, mathematical skills to... really do that [chuckle]. So I took a job as an orderly in a nursing home they had built right behind our home. And that got me into the healthcare field and I've been in the health field for over 30 years. I'm working now on my doctorate in global health sciences, and I'm a registered nurse, have been for...since 1977.
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RS: And as an orderly, what would you have done?
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BH: I took orders from the nurses. And it was a German Mennonite nursing home that I worked in and a German Mennonite hospital that I worked in. And I took orders, I mean, took orders and if it wasn't done right, I heard about it, and was instructed to do it again and, if I didn't do it right, that's it. The Friesen sisters were two nurses that worked together, we're talking 40, 35 years ago whatever. Typical starched white hat, duty shoes white, uniform, stern, perfectionist, they taught me alot about work ethic and doing things right, doing it for a reason, taught me alot about compassion, caring, and taught me a lot about life.
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RS: So the people who would have been there, did their families seem involved?
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BH: Yeah, yeah, great relationship with most of the families, with all the families really, patients. Stayed there about 7 years, and then went to nursing school. I applied for nursing school and they kinda laughed at me, I didn't have the right grades for nursing school, so I was rejected. I went back the next year and I literally begged the head of the department to let me in, based on the work I was doing, not on my grades. And, she took a chance on me and let me into the program and I went from a D student to an A+ student. They would tell me they would literally design exam questions with me in mind, I wonder if he'll get this one? I was in a class of 99 women and me, so back in 1977 it was still a rather unusual thing for a guy to be in nursing school. But, you know, when I talk to my students, you may not know what your passion is now, but when you find your passion you will excel at it, and that's what I've done with my nursing career.
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RS: Where did you go for your nursing degree?
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BH: I went to Red River Community College in Winnipeg. And then I moved here to the United States about a year after I graduated. There was a big nursing shortage here in the United States. I had a nursing license and a reason to get out of town. I packed up my Honda Civic and headed south. Got a job at the Phoenix General Hospital, working night shift in the intensive care unit. Told my mother, it was just a year assignment, I'd be back, not to worry. Never came back, that was 40 years ago. But it turned out well for her because she would come and visit us, and get out of the winters and stay with me for 3 or 4 months at at the time.
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RS: What was it like moving from Winnipeg to Phoenix?
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BH: Well, it was moving from the coldest capital city in the world to, probably, the hottest capital city in the world. And suddenly, you know... there was gay life in Phoenix, there wasn't any in WInnipeg.
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RS: How young were you when you started to grapple with your sexuality?
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BH: 5 years old. I knew, I knew I was different from age 5. And I also knew it was probably something that I shouldn't talk about. I just knew instinctively that there was something different about me and it probably shouldn't be talked about. And I tried, I tried dating girls and it just, wasn't there. I tried.
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RS: Throughout high school or, in your working at the nursing home were you dating? Did you have relationships?
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BH: Yeah, I dated. I dated girls, I was a good looking young man. I had no trouble dating girls.
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RS: What about dating men?
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: No, no.
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RS: Did you have anyone you could talk to?
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BH: Not at all.
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RS: Was that one of the reasons you wanted to leave Winnipeg?
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BH: Yeah, I think it was. I wanted to get as far away as possible. I moved to Phoenix for a woman I was living with at the time. But, when I got down to Phoenix and found my way to the first gay bar and got the courage to go in I realized: oh, okay, this is, this is what it's all about, this is who I am, this is the real me.
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RS: Were you living with her at the time?
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BH: Yeah, she was an American and her parents moved to Phoenix and she wanted to be closer to her parents. And I said, 'sure let's go to Phoenix.' She was a Vietnam draft, or draft dodger, supporter who moved to Canada from the United States to support the American draft dodgers who moved to Canada. So she was a hippie, so I moved to Phoenix to be with her.
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RS: When you broke up did you tell her why?
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BH: Yeah
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RS: How did she take it?
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BH: Fine. She had a lesbian sister, and we talked about it quite a bit. Better than to carry on, carry on and pretend.
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RS: What year?
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BH: That was 1980, 1980. Around circa 1980.
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RS: So you really started to get involved in gay life in the early 80s?
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BH: Yes, I was.
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RS: What was that like?
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BH: Well, I was a young nurse... and I was darn cute, and I had a blast.
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RS: What were some of your favorite clubs?
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BH: Well, you couldn't be gay and not be seen at Connection on Wednesday night or Saturday night. You had to be there. If you weren't there, you weren't cool. So Connection on Wednesdays and Saturdays--it was the place to be and I was there.
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RS: Did your experiences change as the AIDS epidemic hit?
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BH: Well, yeah, it did because, I was... So HIV started in '81, '82 in that area. And I was working in the ER and one of the gay doctors came in one morning and threw down MMR article on the 5 guys that had Kaposi's sarcoma in New York and said to me, 'We got a problem here.' And I read the article and like, okay. And then suddenly we started seeing guys in the ER. So, even though I was an ER nurse, I was suddenly also an HIV nurse because I was out in a Catholic hospital. I was the one they called because nobody else would go in the room. So I was that guy, they called down and said, 'Brian you need to come up here because we aren't going in, you're one of them, you go in there, we're not going in.' And I...the women I worked with because at that time it was largely women, I instinctively knew, I knew 2 things, I knew several things. I knew either A: I was infected with HIV, and would shortly die. Or B: that the mode of transmission was not casual contact because I had been casually, my friends... I was in casual contact with them, I was eating with them, I was shaking their hand, I was around them. So I instinctively knew that, that there was 2, there was really just 2 choices. This was before testing and so on, and I was healthy and so on, so I kinda erred on the 'this is not casual contact sort of thing.' I remember saying to myself... to the women who had children, young children... my fellow, my peers, my fellow nurses, I remember saying to them, 'One day, you will come crawling to the gay community, to ask us how to deal with this issue, for your children.' And today young heterosexual, and gay kids are at risk for HIV, and they ultimately did. We had set up the infrastructures, we had set up the programs, the treatment, the outreach, the doctors who left their practice to become HIV specialists. The nurses, for a large part, were gay, and we set up the infrastructure for the treatment of HIV in the 1980s. So, it did come to us, and I, you know, I'm still involved, it's why I'm going back to school... to finish my degree in global health sciences. I want to finish this work. We're on the brink, the brink of fixing HIV, we could stop it today if we had the political will, if we had the political will. So there you go.
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RS: So being out at work would you get discriminatory comments from peers or from patients or anything like that?
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BH: I wouldn't, I was a very... I know I've said this too many times, I was a handsome young man. I wasn't effeminate, not that there's anything wrong with that, but looking at me, when I was 26, 27 you would not know I was gay. So I didn't experience any of that. At Saint Joseph's, at the hospital I worked at, which was a Catholic hospital, the hospital had a female CEO. Hope I can swear on this because I'm gonna swear in a minute. She had a big donor come to her, and the truth was that, in the emergency department, we could run an entire shift, from doctors to secretaries to techs to other nurses, lesbian, gay--we could run an entire shift with just gay people--okay, and it would be, it was the best of the best, and... and the Chief Financial Officer that they hired was gay also and that created a big kerfuffle. And one of the big donors went to the CEO--her name was Mary--and said to Mary, "I hear there's lots of gays here, and this is a Catholic hospital and I'm not gonna support that." And Mary said, "Well, that's fine because if I didn't have the gay people here I'd have to close down the fucking hospital." So Mary knew and she was right, she would have had to close down the fucking hospital. So, that was 1984, '85 and you know, before we found that, by then we knew how HIV was being transmitted, we started to develop interventions and drugs and in '96, of course, we started with the real treatment for HIV and so on and so on. That's was what it was like in the 80s. There were heroes like Mary. There were hereos that were lesbians who weren't infected by HIV but they were there for the gay boys. There were heroes...like those of us who weren't infected who went into the homes of the dying and cleaned up after them, and took care of them, and held their hand, and were with them when they died, and with their partners, when they died.
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RS: Did you have close friends?
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BH: Yes, absolutely, I would say that because I was such a handsome young man, I had a lot of gay friends. And, you know, I was a nice person--not just handsome. I was a fun, fun guy. I had a lot of friends. And I can say that of probably 100 people that I would call friends, probably 3 of those survived. Probably 2 of those were HIV positive and they're still alive today, long-term survivors of HIV for whatever reason. And 1 was like me, did not become infected with HIV. But I lost every friend I had. Then, suddenly, really didn't have any friends, you know?
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RS: How long did you work at that hospital?
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BH: 10 years.
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RS: So through most of the 1980s?
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BH: 80s and into the 90s, yeah.
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RS: What did you do after that?
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BH: Well, I was a flight nurse for a long time, and then I went on to manage a HIV service organization over in Phoenix, I became the CEO of an HIV organization, where we did clinical trials on medications and so on.
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RS: And what was it like trying to get medication at the time? What was it like working with pharmaceutical companies?
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BH: Well, it was difficult, prior to '96 there really wasn't really any medication. Then after '96 there was medication. It was hard to take and ineffective and almost worse than the disease. The cure was worse than the disease in many ways, but it was all we had. It got better and better and better, as... things come out.
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RS: During this time did you have a particular partner?
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BH: Yes, I did. I did. I've had three partners in my life. The first one was 5 years, the second was 10 years. And the third one I told him, 'Well, you're good for 15 years.' And at 15 years he was gonna re-up, and he said no, he wasn't gonna re-up. But changed his mind and he re-uped and on 21 now, 21 years together.
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RS: So, growing up in Winnipeg did you have much contact with horses or stock?
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BH: No, no. We worked on the...my dad was a farmer, a bad farmer. We had cows and my aunt and uncle had dairy, but we didn't really have horses that we rode. I'd been on one... I didn't really get into riding until I came to Phoenix, Arizona and said, 'You know, you're in the southwest. What should your new identity be?' And it was like, 'Oh, you should be a cowboy, that's what we do in Arizona.' So, I set out to be a cowboy at age 40.
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RS: So, how did you... become a cowboy?
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BH: I found a friend and I said, 'Teach me how to ride.' And bought my first horse... and from there.
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RS: And were you living in a place that you could pasture your horse right next to the house?
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BH: No, no, no I was the boarding the horse.
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RS: And what did you like about riding?
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BH: I liked everything about it. I liked the connection with the animals, and just the skill that's needed, and so on.
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RS: ...Would you have gone to country western bars as well?
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BH: Yeah, Charlie's was the big bar in Phoenix, of course. And I would go to Charlie's on Friday, Saturday night. That's where I met my current partner by the way, good old fashion way. But, I wanted to be, I wanted to learn to ride, and I learned to ride actually before I knew about gay rodeo. So, certiantly that was a good thing. I knew how to do events and learned to ride.
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RS: Growing up did you... idolize cowboys?
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BH: No, no, no. I wanted to be an astronaut and idolized astronauts.
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RS: So it was really promoted by moving to the southwest?
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BH: Yeah, it really was.
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RS: Did you find it pretty easy to find other gay men who wanted to be cowboys?
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BH: No, not the first couple years, not really. Not until I met my rodeo partner, Chuck Brown. I think he and I, if I remember correctly, I went to the gay rodeo in Phoenix, and he went to the gay rodeo in Phoenix, and we, independently, without even knowing each other, decided that, 'Hey, that's something we are going to do.' So I decided, "Well, I'm going to enter the gay rodeo in Phoenix.' So... I did, and he did.
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RS: What year was that?
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BH: Gosh, that's a tough question. I would say it was probably '95.
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RS: And, did you just see the rodeo advertized?
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BH: I think so. Yeah, I went by myself.
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RS: Had you known of its existence prior?
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BH: [head shaking]
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RS: What was that first walking into the arena like?
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BH: Well, for me it was another discovery. The smell of the dirt, the animals. It just harkened back to my childhood and my grandparents' farm and my aunt and uncle's farm and it just... it just meant, it felt like it was meant for me to be. I didn't understand before but I got to the gay rodeo... smelled the dirt and smelled the animals, and the competition, and like, ahhh, this is, this is me.
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RS: So you would have been about 40 at the time?
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BH: I was 40 at the time. Yep.
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RS: What was it like getting into such a physically demanding sport at, you know, not in the first blossom of your life?
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BH: Well, I was at the prime of my life, I was at my best condition ever in my 40s, so... Yeah, I did really well.
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RS: What did you compete in?
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BH: Competed, to start, I competed in the ground events, chutedogging, calf roping on foot, goat dressing, wall drag race, just the entry level things...and did really well. And then Chuck had some other partners in the rodeo that he'd been working with and they kinda dropped out for one reason or another and I decided to partner up back then. And we've been partners ever since, we've been together.
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RS: Did you mainly do team roping with him?
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BH: No, we do goats together, we did wild drag for many years together, we did steer deco together, team roping. We compete against each other in schute dogging and calf roping on foot.
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RS: Have you ever done rough stock?
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BH: I did. I did steer riding, Chuck taught me how to steer ride. That was probably not so wise to do at age 40, because it wasn't the riding it was the falling off and the hitting the ground. And I broke my shoulder and it's like, that's probably not for me at this point. But there are pictures of me, floating around, riding a steer.
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RS: Have you ever been involved of the leadership aspects of IGRA?
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BH: Yeah. I became involved locally and I even became involved internationally. I ran for president and I became president of IGRA. At the time, things were kinda shaky. There was...the organization was going through a rough time by my estimation and I became president and I served for 2 years and then I served for 2 more years and then I served for 2 more years after that.
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RS: Wow, that's dedication.
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BH: That's dedication, I loved every minute of it, it was not easy, I lost a few friends, but... I... ... it was a great 6 years, and the organization seemed to flourish, there was a lot of fun things including, the build up to the gay games rodeo in, Cleveland, so, ya, we had a goal, and it just all seemed so much fun.
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RS: And what years were those for?
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BH: Ahhh, gosh... I'm not good with years. I can't remember, I'd have to look it up.
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RS: Was it late 90s, early aughts?
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BH: Yeah, late 90s, early oughts.
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RS: Sounds fun.
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BH: Yeah.
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RS: What sort of galvanized you to get involved in the side of things rather than just competing?
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BH: Well, at the time I was a trustee and there was some big issues occuring, and I felt I had some leadership to offer, and that it was my responsibility to offer it, and... I did.
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RS: What were some of those issues?
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BH: Well...Some of those issues were related to how we interacted with our sponsors and what our mission was. I helped clarify the mission. On the back of our members, you see, the mission statement which I helped the organization through, 'supporting associations that support the communities,' that was an initiative of mine to crystalize our mission statement into something that we could, when people said, 'What do you do?' That's what IGRA does--supports member associations that support their communities. And we do it through the rodeo. At the time, I was in the right spot at the right time.
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RS: What were some of the challenges of being, IGRA president for 6 years? That's a lot of dedication.
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BH: Yeah.
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RS: What would it have looked like on a day to day basis?
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BH: Well, it was a day-to-day job. When you've got at that time,probably 5,000 members, don't anymore, probably like 2,500, you're dealing with a lot of personalities and a lot of drama and stuff. I dealt with a lot of personalities and drama in the ER, and I knew how to deal with personalities and drama. And I just brought those leadership skills to direct us away from the drama and personalities and get to the facts and the task at hand and the things that needed to be done and all those things. I'm actually pretty proud of those 6 years.
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RS: Did you travel a lot as president?
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BH: Yeah, travel to, at that time, the all the rodeos and all the meeting and so on. I think, I would still say to this day that, one of the trustees --they were a statistician--did a summary of miles traveled and hours spent and--I've got it in my briefcase--it was probably done 6, 7 year ago, and I was the most traveled contestant, at that time, and probably still am to this day.
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RS: And you're still living in Phoenix?
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BH: Yeah, still living in Phoenix.
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RS: So when you were president was that also the time you were running the HIV care organization?
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BH: Correct.
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RS: Did those blend well together or did you have to find a balance?
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BH: No, they blended well together because you were leading an organization that has personalities and drama and another one that has personalities and drama. Mission issues at the HIV organization: 'Why are we here?' Mission issues at IGRA: 'Why are we here? What are we doing?' And I just brought that thinking to the boardroom of the IGRA and tried to keep it focused on factual things, and things that could improve the organization, and things that would be helpful, and be more business-like, and so on.
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RS: Sort of helping to professionalize?
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BH: Yeah.
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RS: And after you stepped down as president, were you pretty ready to step down after your 6?
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BH: Nope, I would have been just happy to go on, but there just comes a time when you just really need to. I also stepped down as CEO of the HIV organization because in a non-profit, you have a shelf life right? I knew it was time.
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RS: And after stepping down as CEO what did you move on to as far as your career?
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BH: I went into consulting... I started my own business and did well with that.
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RS: Has that been fulfilling?
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BH: Very much so.
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RS: And when did you start your program for your PhD?
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BH: It's a doctoral degree in health sciences with a global emphasis, and I started a year ago, so I'm half way through at this point. I want to use it to help our community get across the finish line with wiping out HIV. We can do it, we have all the tools right here today to wipe this disease from the face of the earth and I want to be part of that. Even at the ripe old age of whatever it is because I don't really tell people that.
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RS: What about as far as IGRA after you stepped down as president, did you take a different leadership position?
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BH: I stayed on as trustee, public relations, that kind of thing. I tried to continue to bring my own independent thinking, my best independent thinking to the organization. And voice my own independent thinking on issues. Yeah, so I'm still involved and still a trustee for New Mexico right now.
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RS: So in the, 20+ years you've been involved with the rodeo how has it changed?
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BH: Well, I think the HIV epidemic had a great impact on rodeo. If you look at pictures from the early days the stands were packed with guys and that audience was decimated by HIV and we've really struggled to get that audience back. They're not there. That audience, the people of my ilk, my age, the western cowboy kind of lifestyle, I'm not sure we're there anymore. So HIV has played a big part in my life, not personally, like I said I'm not infected by HIV. I don't know how but, I'm not. I'm one of the lucky ones but, it continues to play a big role in all my life. And maybe we'll get, maybe there are younger kids that are coming back, maybe it's a cycle, maybe we'll see the next generation of young cowboys and cowgirls coming up, but the dramatic impact of HIV on IGRA, it's been slow to dig out of.
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RS: How do you think you can approach younger people to try and get them involved?
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BH: Well, I think we need to make it fun. I think the organization is a little stuck in what we were doing 20 years ago, 30 years ago. And, I take a lot of criticism for it, for voicing this opinion. But we still perseverate on HIV in our grand entry, kids don't want to come watch that, it doesn't mean anything to them. We should be doing that privately at some other private event with just IGRA people. We don't need to have some public display of grief, just because those folks don't remember, they don't, I dare say, they don't care. We do, we can do it but we just shouldn't be doing it here. It tends to keep people away, and we can't seem to let go of that. And I've been a big advocate of letting go of that, it hasn't gone over well. [laughs] But I'm right.
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RS: Were you ever involved in the dancing aspect?
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BH: No.
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RS: Weren't a big two-stepper?
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BH: Well, yes, I was a great two-stepper. Chuck and I were great two-steppers back when there was 3,000 people at a dance on Saturday night. They're all dead now and we don't do much dancing anymore.
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RS: Do you think that could be a way?
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BH: I guess it could, do kids dance anymore?
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RS: I don't know, I'm not a kid.
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BH: Don't two step anymore, I don't know.
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RS: I'm not sure, they definitely dance somehow.
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BH: I guess they do.
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RS: What do you really think is the future of IGRA?
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BH: Well I think, I think we need to retool. We need to build a new IGRA. We need to take a new trajectory. All nonprofits are on a bell curve and we've allowed ourselves to slip down the y-axis of the bell curve a little bit too long. And we need to create a new trajectory for the organization. And it's a struggle to point that out to people, but we need to take a different trajectory. And it makes me not very popular. But, I'm right.
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RS: What about changes in the larger gay community over the last several decades--has it changed? Being just an out gay man over time?
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BH: Well, yeah. Yeah, for sure. I mean, when when rodeos were popular, it would be where you would go to meet people. You don't need to come to a rodeo anymore to meet people. So we have to have something different. We have to re-encourage people to use their electronics to come and meet people at the rodeo for a while. So there's lots of things that we need to do. And it's a slow moving organization and we're a little bit slow to change.
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RS: You said earlier that we're lacking the political will to really see the fight to end AIDS, what do you think could happen to change that?
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BH: Well, there's lots of policies that need to change here in America in relation to health care and access to healthcare and providing people with antiretroviral drugs and PrEP for those that are at risk. And those two things together can wipe out HIV, we know that scientifically today. That the combination of those 2 treatments, treatment as prevention--for people that are HIV positive treat them to a negative viral load will stop them from spreading HIV. And then, treating people who are at high risk, treating them with the PrEP--a once-a-day pill, a cheap, once-a-day pill, will prevent them from getting HIV. And once we've got a critical mass of that going, we've got the disease and we can stop it.
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RS: Why do you think we are lacking that political will?
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BH: Well, because... don't even get me started on that. There are still many prejudices, homophobia, and stigma against gay people in general that... Unfortunately, in in this country, the HIV epidemic took hold in the gay community, in Africa it didn't, it took hold in the heterosexual community, so our experience here is tied to homophobia and stigma and stuff like that. So I'd better go check on the next event cause I've got chute dogging coming up and I've got to win that one.
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RS: Well, good luck, and thank you for talking today.
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BH: Thank you.