AMERICAN MASTER/SLAVE LOVE STORY:
Leather Titleholders Dan Ronneberg and Todd Leavitt on Family, Pride, PReP, and More!
Dan and Todd, both incredibly muscular, make an instant impression wherever they appear. In keeping with their responsibilities as Titleholders and role models, they make a lot of public appearances all over the States as well as in other countries. It's clear that the two of them are devoted to each other, and that they share at least one common interest: bodybuilding! They are both handsome, intelligent, and outgoing. Their three-year relationship, however, is a bit more complex than a casual admirer on the street would perceive. Dan and Todd have a modern consensual Master/slave relationship. It's an example of a "Dominant/submissive" relationship, the spectrum of which also includes "Daddy/boy" relationships among gay men. But here comes another twist in this happily renegade family portrait: Todd is legally married to Randy Gooch, who has been his life partner for 20 years. Dan is Master to both Todd and Todd's husband Randy. The three men live together. (And, yes, they all sleep in the same bed, along with their two English bulldogs.)
Obviously, every power differential relationship is different. Some partners choose to enact their roles on variant levels when in public and in private, for example. Although I had known Dan for quite some time, I had not yet officially met his slave Todd. To show the significance of the dynamics of a Master/slave couple, I actually felt it appropriate to ask permission of the Master before freely speaking to his slave. Dan clarifies to me, "We're in a Master/slave relationship, but we're not 'Old Guard' that way. Certainly, there have been some scenarios where someone has acted inappropriately or has been overbearing. In those cases, I will speak up and say something, like, 'You know, that's not really appropriate, and you ought to know better... particularly if you are 'in the scene'. But, Todd's a big guy, and he is kind of intimidating, so no one ever really gives him a hard time. Randy is also a big guy, so we don't have a whole lot of trouble that way (Laughs)."
It is impossible to accurately estimate how many Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, are in power differential and/or polyamorous relationships. Despite superficial pop culture interest in BDSM culture, the whole subject remains largely misunderstood and often disrespected in American consciousness. In the Leather community, however, these relationships are often open and supported. Still, the idea of both BDSM and polyamorous relationships may be considered at best unusual, and at worst controversial even among the LGBT community at large. But one thing is clear: This unique Leather family makes it work. More importantly, they make it work well. Dan and Todd took the time out of their incredibly busy travel schedule for an enlightening (and almost two hour) discussion about their relationship, HIV and PReP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) awareness, and the current state of the Leather community.
JR: Hello gentlemen. Thank you for speaking with me. So, Dan, let's start with you. A lot of people, even in the LGBT community at large, may have a hard time understanding the dynamic between a Master or Daddy and his collared slave or boy. They may have a negative impression because they say that the relationship is not "equal". How would you explain that to them?
Dan: They aren't equal. It's very clear that they are power differential relationships. One person is agreeing, consensually, to give up some of their power to make decisions or to do certain things. But it is an exchange. So, the other person is agreeing to take over those roles and to be responsible for that. And that really does mean being responsible to it. That means sexually as well. I am completely responsible for making sure that they (Todd and Randy) have a good time, and that they get off, and that they are happy. There are two of them and just one of me, so I have to make sure we do things that involve all three of us, and that nobody feels left out, and to figure what we are going to do next. I have to put some thought into how I play with them and what we do. I wouldn't necessarily call it "catering", but it is paying attention to certain needs and interests-- which may be very different for Todd then they are for Randy and determining how can I do both of those at the same time.
Todd: I come from the position that my job is to make sure that he is satisfied... even if that means that I don't achieve orgasm, or don't necessarily get what I want. As long as he's happy, I'm happy! And, he's getting it multiple times a day! (Laughs) It's my job to make his life easier. He is in charge, and I love it. As long as he's happy, I am totally happy.
Dan: Our views are totally complimentary. My role is to make sure that they are totally taken care of. if they aren't, then I am not being a good Master or a good Dom to them.
JR: Gotcha! So, we all know a lot of people in the Leather family who are in Master/slave or Daddy/boy relationships, but your story is indeed unique. How did it happen?
Dan: It's interesting, because I wasn't necessarily looking to be in a polyamorous relationship-- although I am now glad I am. There are certainly some things that you have to get used to about that. Some of them are really great learning things, and some of them are really tough learning things. In our scenario, what happened was: Randy and Todd had been together. They are both more on the submissive side, and they were seeking someone who was more dominant for a long time. They had been disappointed quite a bit. Todd had told me that it was never going to happen, to find someone cool with both of them. I was moving to Washington, and Randy invited me to dinner with him and Todd. We talked about things we were interested in, and relationship dynamics, and our experiences. We had a great time, and then Todd and I went on a "date" to the D.C. Eagle. I got along with Randy really well and talked with him a lot, but I wasn't sure if Todd liked me!
Todd: (Laughs) I did! But I had to play it cool. I really had to prove to him that I liked him!
Dan: We had a really great time at the Eagle, and then our relationship really grew from there. Randy and Todd had a very "equal" relationship with each other, although it has varied over time. Initially, Todd was dominant to Randy, and that's what they wanted... and, well, Todd can explain it better!
Todd: I would say that in any equal couple, one of us has a certain spirit control that we are the master of. For instance, Randy "owns" the kitchen, "owns" the cooking, basically "owns" the house! So basically, when it comes to how things are washed, how things are folded, how things are vacuumed, how things are cooked... that is his. I basically earn the money. It's not like there is a role assigned. He just likes it that way... and, he's good at it! He's good at planning and all that other stuff, and I just let him do those things. The relationship between Randy and I has changed with bringing a Master in to the mix, but those roles still play a part of it. Randy is still paying the bills, taking care of the house, cooking, baking, doing a lot of the laundry, making sure the dogs are walked...
Dan: Randy is very much the organizer in the family. So, while you have this very obvious power differential relationship, it is still interesting because we can't get anything done without Randy. Randy helps me organize my travel plans, makes sure all my stuff is packed, that I am at the right hotel, and making sure about the rental car. It's actually funny, because I joke with my friends that when I am apart from Randy and Todd, I am like a helpless baby! I don't even know what to do.
Todd: For Randy, this fits into his submissiveness too... so it's also his way of serving me, and therefore the way to serve his Master. So, he feels really good about it. It is his strength, and he can bring it to help the family.
JR: So, the bottom line is: The slave gets pleasure from the submissive role.
Dan: Bingo! Here's an example: I like to cook. I really do. Randy is a fantastic cook, and he loves to cook, so I am happy to let him do that. I would not think to get into his kitchen, or touch anything, or do anything. I am happy to help out, but it is his domain. I laugh about how after 18 years, I showed up and I was the "homewrecker"! But I'm not really the homewrecker. There is definitely the power dynamic, but there's also the fact that Randy and Todd had been together so long, and there's also the dynamic that there are also things to learn from being in a polyamorous relationship as opposed to being in a relationship with just two people. One of the things that people ask me all the time, or suggest to me, is something like, "You have to be careful that your relationship with Todd is exactly like your relationship with Randy, so that no one gets jealous." But actually, that's completely wrong! I tried to do that exactly, but if you actually sit down and think it through, it's ridiculous. Randy is a different person than Todd. He has different needs than Todd has. He wants to do different things with me than Todd wants to do with me. Trying to make the relationships identical is ridiculous. They are going to be different, and that's totally OK. We have relationships with each other, and they fit together well and compliment each other. So, that's an interesting part of it... but it takes some working through. I thought that when we first got together, all it would take would be one argument and I would be out on the street, cause I'd be the problem! In fact, I'm both happy and embarrassed to say that the first argument we had was a full-on, "everyone hates everyone"! It was not Todd and Randy ganging up on me, but it was all of us yelling at each other. Then, we got all of that out of our system, and communicated about what happened, and it was great. We got past that. The biggest part about a polyamorous relationship is that you have to communicate. If you have to communicate a lot with two people, then you have to communicate an exponentially greater amount of time with three people.
People, sometimes even straight friends, ask me two weird questions. The first is, "How can you love TWO men?", and the other is "How can you love two men THE SAME?" I always go back to this question, "Do you love your wife? And do you love your mother? So, how can you love TWO women at the same time?" People will say, "Well, they are different people..." I say, "Exactly!" So, actually when we think about all the relationships that we have in our life, and all the people we care about, and all the people we love-- then, yes, we do love them in different ways and we do have different relationships with them. We all have the capacity to love many people. It might not be the norm to love more than one person romantically, but I found it to be amazingly fulfilling.
Todd: I think that the difference is that most people would never even venture to try it, so they don't know that they do have the capacity to have multiple romantic relatinships.
Dan: Yes. Our culture doesn't really foster that.
JR: Yet, the Leather community has always been unique in that we respect traditions, yet we also are known for "breaking the rules" at the same time... so, of course, people wouldn't know about it unless they actually tried it and allowed themselves to explore it.
Todd: Certainly, venturing into these waters can be risky. I think that what really set Randy and I up for this was that fundamentally, we are both submissive at heart: submissive sexually, and submissive in a way that we are looking for a pathway to guide us. We looked for a long time. Seventeen years, looking for Dan! We met a lot of men along the way who could play the role of Master, but only briefly... maybe in a scene, but then they would lapse into a regular role. They just couldn't sustain it. It was very frustrating for us, because we were looking for somebody who was genuinely that person, who was comfortable in that role. It was part of his self, not just a role he was adopting for that weekend. We also met guys who let us know that the would own us both, but then we discovered later that they actually preferred one or the other, and were trying to break us apart. So, that was also disappointing. He is the genuine stuff, and when we met him, we knew it (laughs), and we were like, "This one can got get away!" So, all the fights that he was talking about... well, we may have differences here and there, but there was a greater purpose. We needed him, and he is a rare breed. Randy and I are both smart and very accomplished guys, so we need someone who is also of that same fabric.
Dan: I also think that when you are talking about power exchange relationships, there are a few other things. It is one thing to have a sexual experience, but it is very different to do that every day. Yes, sex is one part of it, but there are other things that everyone has in their common experiences in life. For example: How does the grocery shopping get done? Where do the clothes get put? And... Damn it, could you just please pick up your socks and put them in the laundry basket and not throw them next to the bed?! So, that all has to happen to in the context of that relationship. Sometimes that can be tricky too.
Dan: One of the things that really helped us was that Todd and I both have military backgrounds. I was an Officer in the Air Force, Todd was an Officer in the Army, Randy was essentially a military spouse the whole time, albeit a "super secret" spouse. A lot of the traditions in the Leather community came directly from the military. I was a military academy graduate, so I was really indoctrinated with a lot of that. Todd was ROTC, but was a Lieutenant Colonel-- a high ranking officer. So, those things were kind of natural. If you look at the military model, there are certain customs and courtesies that you extend to officers all the time. You just do it all the time. That's the way it is. It's no big deal. Everybody has their place, and you know where you are, and that's cool. You just don't get worked up about it, because that's what you live every day.
Todd: And, in military relationships: You may be subordinate to an officer or a Senior NCO and there may may be a bit of informality that you get into... but it's clear that you fit into the hierarchy.
JR: So, Dan, you've been very open about your work with the Federal government. You are clearly out at work, you use your real name, and it's in your official bio. For a lot of people who live in more repressive states, cities, or cultures, I would imagine that they'd be astonished, or in awe, or both at your openness. How has that been for you, to be able to be "out and proud" and openly in a polyamorous relationship?
Dan: So here's the thing: That didn't "just happen". I worked for one of the more conservative Federal agencies. I wouldn't say that it's necessarily well-accepted, or embraced, or that people were happy about it. In fact, I had a very difficult time when I first joined the FAA. My partner at the time went out to Los Angeles, and I went to Atlanta. We were separated for a time. It was really difficult, and we were having problems. My manager knew about that, and she was really great. She suggested that I transfer out to the West Coast. The closest I got was Hawaii. It was great because my partner at the time worked for the airlines, and at the time there were about 30 direct flights a day from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Her boss, however, found out that I was gay and went completely nuts. He called me in and took me to task about it, and told me all about his religious beliefs, and that I didn't deserve a federal job based upon my "moral turpitude", and all these things. He was really terrible about it. I had to go through the whole EEO process. I had to file a complaint. I was also still a probationary employee, so he could have just fired me. My boss, however, knew what had happened and was willing to stand up for me. I went through that whole process, and it was not fun. But at the end of it, I learned a few things. We have these sets of rules and regulations that protect us-- and while the federal government doesn't always go a great job in enforcing those, they are still there. I got introduced to our LGBT Employee Association, to which I eventually became the national chairperson. Once that happened, I was "out" to all 47,000 of my work colleagues. My face is on the website, my phone number is there... So, if it's just a little bit more shocking than that, or a LOT more shocking than that, I'm already out there. You're certainly not going to "shame" me. I've advocated for HIV-positive pilots, controllers and aviation safety inspectors before the FAA Federal Flight Surgeon. I meet with the Assistant Administrator for Civil Rights and the Assistant Administrator for Human Resources, particularly when the Obergefell decision was coming through. And then there was the executive order stating that they were going to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. I was talking about how that was going to happen and how they were treating people,. I was standing up for someone who put in his benefits application for his husband who he'd been legally married to in Massachusetts for some time-- and a benefits person out in Kansas City said, "I don't believe in gay marriage. I ripped up your life insurance application." OK, how are we going to deal with that? How are you retrain that employee to make sure that the next LGBT employee won't get treated in the same way? So, with that kind of visibility came this freedom. You can't shame someone who doesn't feel ashamed about it. You can't silence someone who is an advocate and who speaks out regularly. I didn't want to come out at work initially, but that whole terrible experience set me free. It was probably the best thing that happened to me, even though it was probably also the worst thing that happened to me. I allowed me to become an advocate, and just really allowed me to be me.
JR: Wow! Thank you for sharing. So, as Titleholders, what causes do you both feel most passionate about?
Dan: HIV stigma, and PReP education and advocacy. For me, the two are intertwined with each other; They go hand in hand. We have this interesting situation where we are exactly mimicking the straight community and the very difficult time they had with offering birth control. We have the problem of unwanted pregnancy, and we offer birth control to women, and then there are people who are saying, "Why can't you just not have sex? If you give these women birth control, they are just gonna become sluts." That argument is ridiculous. If you are someone who is anything other than ultra-conservative, you know that that's simply just not true. You are shaming people's sexuality, and trying to impose your own moral thinking about what they do with their bodies and what they do with their partners in their bedrooms. Is that really what we ought to be doing? I don't think so. It's none of my business. Then when you look at HIV stigma, and you look at many of the arguments against PReP, it's the same thing. They are not science-based arguments or thoughtful discussion about the risks, and/or whether the risks are appropriate for you and your partner. You have this sort of visceral reaction. I completely understand why. But the attitude is: "If you don't use condoms, you're just a slut... and shame on you. What's wrong with you? Don't you know our history? Don't you know better?" I have been lectured by people about that.
JR: You must remember that the attitude about using a condom every time you have sex was VERY firmly ingrained into all of us back in the 80's.
Dan: I was a child in the 80's. I didn't really know what was going on at that time. I didn't see everyone dying around me. But just as I say that you can't judge people based on their decisions, I would never judge you personally for using a condom every time. That's great if that's the decision you choose to make for yourself-- because of where you came from, and what you saw, and your life decisions. If that's the right decision for you, then you should do that. However, moving forward: Things change. PReP has come along. I'm not advocating that people use Prep and discard condoms. I'm advocating that people become educated about what their options are, and that they have conversations, and that they make smart decisions with their partners and their doctors. Ultimately, the decision has to be for them. In the end, if they make the wrong decisions, then they are the ones who have to live with the consequences. Not me. I'm not going to tell you what to do with yourself, because I'm not going to have to live with that consequence. But, have that knowledge. Don't cut people off from information. People want to be smart. they want to make decisions-- but they have to have the information to make that decision. We seem to be reverting to shaming people about sex... again!
Let's talk about a different disease that's not sex-related. There's a disease that's persists around the world that kills lots of people. You can avoid this disease by using mosquito nets and bug spray. There's also medication available, and that medication has severe side effects. In fact, it kills a lot of people. The effects are much more negative than Truvada's side effects. That disease is malaria. I don't hear anyone saying to stop taking your anti-malarial medication and use more mosquito nets. I don't see anyone peddling Deep Woods Off to malarial regions.
Todd: (Laughs) And I don't hear anyone blaming you for choosing to live in a region where there are a lot of mosquitoes!
Dan: Doctors and infectious disease experts and smart people will say: Take your anti-malarial medication, use your nets, and put your bug spray on. Be smart about it. You really don't want malaria. It's a bad time. But we say that in regard to HIV and Truvada, because it has to do with sex-- and we are very obsessed about being in other people's sex lives. So, that's what I feel passionate about!
Todd: I'm a physician. In my practice, I have run into cases where people have psychiatric conditions which predispose them to poor judgement and impulsive behaviors-- sometimes sexual in nature. In one case, I had this patient who felt abandoned and alone and on the verge of suicide. He would engage in unprotected sexual encounters with other men. During the course of the weekend, there were somewhere between five to ten encounters. He had just been released from an inpatient unit where this was also discussed. None of his other psychiatrists had even recommended that he be on PReP. That astonished me. PReP had been out for quite some time already. The guy had enough problems already, so why add HIV to that list? He was lucky that he was still HIV-negative. I had recommended that he start Truvada. In the military system, you have to go to two infectious disease doctors for consultation. He received the consultation. The doctor recommended three months of Truvada, and then taper him off. Why? Because during those three months, he would be educated about abstinence and condoms. Come on! This guy already knew about condoms, and he already knew that abstinence was an option. But his behavioral health condition did not lend itself to great judgements at the moments when he was feeling abandoned, lonely, and suicidal. So, he was on Truvada, and I spoke to his infectious disease doc about being on the medication more than three months. We were looking at possibly being on the medication indefinitely to provide that extra layer of protection. The infectious disease doc relented and decided to keep him on it. But it was concerning to me that it was only three months of Truvada and then we'd have to go back to abstinence and condoms only. That's concerning to me. The thing that I love about PReP is that you take it when you're NOT feeling passionate. What is going to impair your judgement when you wake up in the morning and you take the pill? The problem is when you're feeling sexual. That's when we are asking people to put on that condom, and that's tough. Usually guys may be drinking or engaging in other things, and that's not when we have the best judgement. PReP circumvents that. You take it when you're sober. Just take it! So, there's a lot that needs to be learned in the medical system. Some physicians don't know much about PReP, and some don't even know it's available at all. Some even mistake it for a drug used only if you're HIV-positive already.
The thing that I find very frustrating with current gay culture is that it's very difficult for us to respect one another just for being who we are, and for our health status. We have to respect medical decisions that we make for ourselves. The decisions that you make for yourself are between you and your health care providers. You're also factoring in your partners, your family, your children and what not. Hopefully, you are getting accurate and appropriate information from your healthcare provider. Together, it's a decision you need to make for yourself. A third party really has no bearing on that. They should really have no say, or even an opinion on that, except maybe, "I'm glad you made that decision." For you, the risk of being on Truvada may be high: Maybe you have a pre-existing liver or kidney condition, or maybe just one side effect is just too much for you. That is OK, but that's your medical decision. We have to become respectful of our medical decisions. To call someone a "slut" just because they are on PReP-- it's unethical and ridiculous.
JR: I agree! So, Todd, you have been in the Leather community for a very long time, since you won your first Title in 1991. How has "the scene" changed since then?
Todd: I remember "Drummer" Magazine and Tom of Finland artwork as inspirations for the man I wanted to be as well as the man I wanted to be with! I discovered the Detroit Eagle as a second home. The thing that I love about being a gay man, particularly a gay Leatherman, is that you essentially write your own rules. You hear about the Old Guard. I don't know if I've ever actually met them during my 26 years. (Laughs) The thing is: People are always going to want to impose rules, but essentially, we write our own rules in this community. The thing that I've been most impressed with is that we've shown a lot of flexibility to incorporate elements that I never even considered back then. The whole puppy scene is amazing. It's a way to express what we were doing back then, but a little differently. The whole Gear scene is very much the same way too. It makes a lot of sense. Leather is expensive. So, go into masculine type of sports gear. It's totally fine. I think that the community was very narrow in the past-- but because we have a lot of very smart, creative, kinky people, it's just gotten a lot broader and broader in the last 25 or so years. I think that's fine. As interests become more broad, you may have fewer people that fit into those niches, but I think that's OK. And the community has to keep up! If you own a bar, you have to adapt to where the culture is going. Some bars do better than others. Right now, the D.C. Eagle is on the precipice of becoming the best Leather bar in the whole nation. Why? Because the owners are adapting to it. They have pup nights. They have nudist events. They have dance nights. They have DILF (Daddy I'd Like to F**k) nights. They are really trying to capture the breath of the community. You have to adapt. If you're only selling Atari cartridges, then you deserve to go out of business. (Laughs) Some people may call it a crisis. Why? Because it's different! I think that any change is going to be threatening, but you really have to embrace it. We have too many smart, creative, and kinky people to keep it in a narrow band. You're wearing neoprene. Do you look good in it? Great! Do you like rubber? Do you feel sexy? Perfect! I don't think it really manners. It's all kink. It's just your way of expressing yourself, and people shouldn't be afraid to express their sexuality!
One thing is for certain: These two all-American role models are clearly not afraid to express themselves, be it their sexuality or any other aspects of their lives!
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