Interview with Mr 501 Eagle 2016, Eric Masters

INDIANAPOLIS – Eric Masters is Mr 501 Eagle 2016 and the new executive director of Team Friendly Indiana, an organization committed to breaking down the stigma of HIV. As Mr 501 Eagle, he is invested in bridging the gap between new and older generations of leathermen and encouraging a celebration of diversity in the leather community. I was able to catch up with him outside a local coffeeshop on a cool Wednesday morning to talk about his IML experience, the 501 Eagle in Indianapolis and his plans for Team Friendly Indiana.

ANDI FOGT – Can you talk a bit about taking over Team Friendly Indiana? What are some of your plans for the organization?

ERIC MASTERS – I’m pretty excited to help Team Friendly take off, and do the great work that needs to be done in this state which includes HIV advocacy. We have great resources for people who need to be connected with testing or treatment, but there aren’t many organizations out there that are actually letting people know that “Hey, it’s okay whether you have it or you don’t have it.”

The stigma should not exist. And the discrimination should not exist. The hope with Team Friendly is that we can change minds and hearts across our state. We’ll travel across Indiana, meeting various bartenders and bar owners, networking with other HIV organizations, and relationship building to create a statewide presence. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence located in Lafayette for example are super excited to get involved with us.


Mr Friendly symbol designed by HIV Prevention Specialist and Creator of Mr Friendly, Dave Watt

AF – It says on your profile that you also work with The Damien Center. Do you work with them in a totally different capacity than Team Friendly or do the two organizations work together?

EM – The Damien Center is completely a volunteer opportunity for me. I helped during the Damien Center’s fundraiser Dining Out For Life by working with a participating restaurant.

The executive director reached out to me after he saw my video blog on my Facebook page where I came out as a man who has lived with HIV for ten and a half years, and talked about the work that needs to be done in our state. He got excited and he said, “I want to talk with you. I want to know more about what you want to do and how we can help.” So I think there’s potential for us to partner up with DC.

AF – That would be awesome. I don’t think there’s ever been a partnership with Team Friendly and the Damien Center.

EM – I don’t think so, no.


Posted by Eric Masters on Thursday, June 2, 2016

Video blog posted on Facebook by Eric Masters describing his IML experience

AF – So going back to the 501, I thought it would be fun if you’d tell any personal stories about the bar that you’re comfortable sharing.

EM – (laughs) Well…the first time that I went there involved a church van.

AF – A church van?! (laughs) Showed up to protest or…

EM – (laughs) No! Showed up to participate. So, it was funny, I was driving this conference speaker back to the Indianapolis Airport and they send me in the church’s van. I had not come out really at all. So here I was driving back and I found The Word magazine and in back of the magazine it had a map of all the gay bars in the city and the first one I saw was the 501. And I was like, “Well that sounds interesting. I’m going to go find out what this place is about.”

So here I pull up to the 501 in a church van. It doesn’t say church or anything on the side of it so I park it right out front. I go inside and I’m like “Holy cow…this is amazing!”

AF – (laughs) Kind of into the deep end, huh?

EM – No! Most people would think, “Oh, this is the deep end”, right?

I fell in love.

I fell in love with the people, because I found that they were so welcoming. They didn’t care about my story. They didn’t care that I drove up in a church van. They were…I call it my Cheers. You know, the whole, everybody knows your name. To me that’s how it was when I walked in there. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have leather on. In fact, I might have been in a shirt and tie. But I just loved how welcoming they were. They didn’t care, and that was something that was super important to me. That I could start the process of coming out in a place where people weren’t going to judge me.

The 501 Eagle in Indianapolis

The 501 Eagle in Indianapolis. The bar celebrated its 30th Anniversary this April.

AF – That’s a really great story. So the 501 is up for lease and it seems like there are some nerves around that. Have you picked up on any of it?

EM – Oh yes. Most definitely. I don’t think there’s a moment that I can’t walk out on the street without people saying “So…the 501?” I went to a birthday party the other day and somebody else was like “So…” And I’m like “Stop.” (laughs) “Just stop.”

My statement is that the 501 has been up for sale for years. There have been hints of this for years and years and years. For whatever reason, this is the year that someone saw the ad and created huge hype about it. There are no official offers or bids on the 501 at this time. So what I tell people is “It’s open. And it’ll remain open. Come out and have fun.”

Until there’s a closed sign across the door we’re still going to go out, we’re still going to do the 501 and we’re still going to be us. So my call to the Indy community and the Great Lakes Community is “The bar needs us. Financially they need us to keep showing up.”

Unfortunately Talbott St., one of the iconic gay bars in the Indianapolis community, just closed. It is speculated that they were facing financial situations where they had no other choice. We as a community need do what we can to prevent that from happening to our bar. We have to stop moaning and complaining when we see pansexual people, women or younger people there. We really just have to go “What is this business going to do without those individuals? What is our community going to do without those individuals?” And continue to show up, support the space where we love to play. Otherwise yeah it probably WILL close, just like any other business would.

AF – Have you noticed that a lot of gay men are not going for that reason, because there are women and pansexual people in the space?

EM – Yeah. There’s a very misogynistic view. My message for IML, and really for this year, has been, “Knock It Off.”

We preach the words respect, acceptance, love, tolerance as long as it pertains to us, but if it stretches our boundaries and stretches our comfort level all of a sudden we don’t care about those words anymore. We do the opposite. For whatever reason, I hear all the time, “Well, we don’t want them in here. We don’t want them in here.” Well, they belong in here because they enhance our family. They add to our family, they don’t take away.

That was a question that I believe Derek asked me at IML as one of my judges. “Do I believe that women coming into the leather community takes away from the image of what a leatherman is?”


I don’t. I believe they add to it. You can’t tell me that when my boyfriend Luis stands in the back alley with Christina Court and they smoke a cigar together and he calls her his brother, out of a term of family rather than some type of gender assignment, you can’t tell me that that’s any less of a family, less of a unit, than the random guy that walks into the bar.

AF – You touched on running for IML, so this would be a good segue. Can you talk about your experience?

EM – Wow!

So when I walked into IML it touched on every single emotion that a man can possibly have. And even a month after I’m still processing emotions, processing feelings. I went for the brotherhood, yes. I also went to represent my community. And Indiana. And show that, hey, this great Hoosier state has some awesome things going for it. And…to make a long story short, I wanted to hit top 20. I really, really wanted to. And I would be lying if I didn’t say I was devastated that I didn’t. Some people criticize me for that, and that’s okay. I think everybody’s IML journey is a little bit different.

Eric Masters on stage at International Mr Leather 2016

Eric Masters on stage at International Mr Leather 2016

On Sunday night I sat there in the back of the auditorium, devastated because I watched the curtain drop in front of me and my name wasn’t called. And it took the brothers to come hug on me, to love on me, and go “It’s okay.” After I walked out of there I ran into Ron Kautz, Mr 501 Eagle 2012.

He goes, “How did you do?”

I told him, “Well, I have my envelope here, I haven’t opened it yet.”

He said, “Well, you do that on your own and you let me know how you did.”

So I opened it later and I told him how I did and he goes “That is awesome! That is the highest that anyone carrying the Mr. 501 Eagle title has ever ranked.”

So that just really pumped me up and I was like, “Thank you, I needed that.”.

I continued to process this. You know, I went into Mr. 501 Eagle, my first title, going, “I want to help my community. I want to help these young guys. And I want to advocate for HIV. I want to build Team Friendly.” That passion, the reasons why I ran all resurfaced. I was reminded one night as I sat chatting with my boyfriend, Luis, and I said, “You know, we always say that all things happen for a reason. So there’s a reason that I didn’t hit the top twenty. There’s even a reason that I didn’t hit podium.”

I wholeheartedly believe this. You look at the IMLs, you look at the podium people: they travel a ton. Indiana is in a time when it needs a titleholder to lead them. They need somebody here to bridge the gap between our various LGBTQ communities, because we are so splintered. It takes saying “Remember when we all celebrated each other? Remember how we all just walked in the Indy Pride parade and celebrated our diversity?” Yet, as soon as Pride is over we forget about it. My work was to come back here after IML and begin putting the splinters back together, or at least to work to create conversation around the importance of embracing diversity.

AF – So that’s pretty much it for my interview questions, Is there anything you would like to add? Anything you would like to promote?

EM – In the past Team Friendly Indiana has focused only on Indianapolis. My view is that if we’re going to call this Team Friendly Indiana, we must encompass our entire state rather than just one central city. So if anyone out there wants to jump on board and help us in expanding our efforts, please reach out to me and let me know you’re interested.

You can follow Eric Masters on Facebook and Twitter and the new Team Friendly Indiana page on Facebook.