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The Other Coors Spokesman

Bruce Chopnik drinks Coors beer. Under normal circumstances, that's not a big deal -- hell, lots of men drink Coors -- but Bruce Chopnik is also International Mr. Leather. He earned his title fair and square at a pageant in Chicago earlier this year by scoring high on the question-and-answer...
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Bruce Chopnik drinks Coors beer.

Under normal circumstances, that's not a big deal -- hell, lots of men drink Coors -- but Bruce Chopnik is also International Mr. Leather. He earned his title fair and square at a pageant in Chicago earlier this year by scoring high on the question-and-answer portion, keeping a tight stomach and fashioning well in harness and chaps. Now he works as a goodwill leather ambassador, spreading cheer throughout the gay community and beyond. Each time he leaves Denver and visits a new city as International Mr. Leather -- which is just about every weekend for the next year -- he saddles up to a stool in the local gay bar and asks the bartender to serve him a bottle of Coors Light.

If the bartender sneers at the mention of Coors and snips, "We don't serve Coors" -- which happens a lot, especially on the East and West Coasts -- Chopnik will lean into the bartender and ask, in a question-authority tone, Why not?

The bartender will respond by spinning a tale Chopnik has heard a thousand times: Coors is an enemy to the gay community. To Adolph Coors, the bartender will say, minorities were like spit on the sidewalk -- and gays were like spit in the gutter. Until 1986, the bartender will point out, Coors tried weeding out gay employees by hooking them to lie detectors and pressing them for facts on their sexuality.

If the bartender is really up on his gay literature, he will add with a good dose of self-confidence that Coors continues to pump money into anti-gay organizations and causes. The bartender will conclude by noting that Coors family members are homophobes and that, hey, pal, a dime for Coors is a dollar for hate.

Chopnik will respond with two simple words: You're wrong. He will then begin to educate his new friend, because it's about time the gay community learned the facts about Coors. It's time the gay community stopped relying on these urban myths that serve only to enlarge an imaginary enemy and thereby prolong the oppression. Brother, Chopnik will say, the Coors Brewing Company doesn't funnel money to right-wing causes -- you can check their records.

I know what Coors is all about, Chopnik will say, and the company is committed to our community. Chopnik might add -- if he feels the need to -- that he's lunched with Coors Brewing Company president Leo Kiely and asked him point-blank, man-to-man, face-to-face, if Coors is moving dollars into anti-gay hands. And you know what Kiely said? "Not one penny of Coors money goes to anti-gay causes." And Chopnik believes him.

It's about moving forward and letting go of the past, Chopnik will tell the bartender. Coors isn't a friend of Dorothy just for the novelty; Coors is in it for the long run.

And if you can't accept the facts of the present, pal, then you'll be left in the past -- and you know what you're really doing then? You, sir, are hurting the gay community. Because here is this company, Coors, that has done wrong in the past and is ready to make a permanent change for the better. And you want to deny that? What if more companies were like Coors today? Think about it.

Buddy, here's a buck for your time.

And if you really cared about the gay community, you'd drink Coors beer.

For decades now, as far as the gay community is concerned, drinking Coors beer has been as unthinkable as having unsafe sex.

The deeply held anti-Coors sentiments can be traced back to the Castro district of San Francisco in 1973, when a camera-shop owner named Harvey Milk made a political handshake that would foster gay spite toward Coors for years to come.

Milk was running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, campaigning to become the city's first openly gay elected official. It was more than just an election, Milk said many times; it was a movement. Milk knew that if gays could be recognized as a united "community," they could force change. Allan Baird, a representative of the local Teamsters union, offered Milk the chance to test his theory. Baird was the leader of a California boycott against Coors beer that had begun after Hispanics claimed the brewery was racist in its hiring practices. Baird was also the head negotiator between union truck drivers and six beer distributors. In the union dispute, his plan was to force the six distributors into a new contract by cutting off their points of destination, and he'd convinced more than 400 grocers and bar owners in San Francisco to turn away the scab truck drivers. Baird had most of the blue-collar city working with him, but he was looking for the knockout punch. He heard there was a guy in the Castro who was leader of the gays.

Baird met with Milk and told him of his plan. Could the gay bars and businesses boycott the six beer distributors, too? Milk agreed, but he wanted something in return. He wanted gays to get some of those jobs with the Teamsters.

Baird shook hands and left the meeting amused. Milk and his supporters called the owners of gay bars and put out the word. Now that the boycott was citywide, five of the six breweries quickly gave in. They signed new contracts with the Teamsters.

All except Coors.

Coors wasn't known as a homophobic company, but it was fiercely anti-union. When Adolph Coors immigrated to this country and started his family brewery in 1873, he paid his workers well. He didn't need a damn union. And so it had become a rigid company culture: The Coors family didn't let unions push them around.

For Milk, the fact that the gay boycott was the final blow to the stalemate validated his theory that gays had economic punch and, therefore, political strength. And the fact that the Teamsters had come to them for support symbolized a step toward mainstream acceptance. Even though Baird was dogged by his rank-and-file for making deals with "the fruits," he paid his political debts and hired gays into the Teamsters. Soon, Teamsters drivers were once again delivering beers like Budweiser and Lucky Lager into the Castro -- everything but Coors.

The longer Coors held out in the labor fight, the more scrutiny the company brought upon itself. Rumors that Coors administered polygraph tests to its employees were substantiated. Former employees claimed in lawsuits that when they admitted to being gay or left-leaning in their politics, they were eventually fired. (Coors has confirmed the use of polygraphs but denied that the tests asked anything beyond simple questions such as "Would you steal from the company?") Word spread that William and Joseph Coors, sons of Adolph and heirs to the brewery, were dedicated conservatives who invested heavily in the political causes and candidates they believed in -- causes and candidates that opposed gay rights.

In April 1977, Coors workers went on strike at the brewery, and the AFL-CIO executive council voted to support what had become a national boycott. At the same time, in Florida, former Miss America runner-up Anita Bryant was leading Save Our Children, a conservative group that pushed a referendum to overturn a Miami-Dade county ordinance that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Rumors quickly spread through the Castro that Joseph Coors was helping finance Bryant's campaign. Milk, now a city supervisor, called for Coors to be banned and boycotted. Cases of Coors were turned upside down and poured into the gutter. Coors took out ads in gay publications denying the contributions to Bryant, but it was too late. The boycott was now a stiff-arm that signified the gay movement's power. Drinking beer became a political statement.

And on November 27, 1978, when former San Francisco supervisor and police officer Dan White walked into Milk's city hall office and shot him five times, the gay community lost a voice for liberation.

Milk had known it was coming. Nine days before his assassination, he'd said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

Know what a group of San Francisco activists -- including Allan Baird -- did on November 16 last year to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Milk's assassination? They poured cases of Coors into the gutter, that's what.

Know what Bruce Chopnik, International Mr. Leather, wants to do when he makes his September 26 appearance at San Francisco's Folsom Street Fair, the largest leather show in the world? He wants to educate "a new generation of gays" about Coors, that's what.

"What Mr. Leather is doing is misleading and misinforming the gay community," says Dr. Don Kilhefner, a founding member of the Coors Boycott Committee who lives and teaches in Los Angeles. "He's a betrayal of gay liberation and gay people."

In January, when the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation accepted a $110,000 grant from the Coors Brewing Company, Kilhefner and his cronies crashed the board of directors' meeting in Los Angeles and issued a thirty-minute sermon on the continuing evils of Coors. Kilhefner lit into the five boardmembers and awarded GLAAD the first-ever "Coors Whore Award." The award was a framed picture of a cockroach guzzling a can of Coors while defecating on the rainbow flag.

"When the director took the award," Kilhefner remembers, laughing, "he was so stupid, he thought I was actually praising him. Like a fool, he actually took it. When he realized what it was...he dropped it on the lesbian sitting next to him!"

But Kilhefner doesn't laugh about why he gave the award to GLAAD. "We felt what they had done was so heinous, so wrong, that here is an organization whose primary function is to act as a watchdog for the gay and lesbian community in terms of discrimination, and they are taking money from an organization -- a family -- that is anti-women, anti-gay, anti-lesbian, anti-minority, and supporting hate groups from all over the country."

Kilhefner is a professional Coors-basher. He pounces on gay bars in Los Angeles that try to sell Coors. By his estimation, there are between sixty and eighty gay bars in L.A., and not one sells Coors. When word spread that the Rage and Mickey's on Santa Monica Boulevard were pouring Coors, Kilhefner and his friends arranged a meeting with the owners and laid out the evidence. They relied heavily on the work of San Francisco journalist Bruce Mirken.

In January 1997, Mirken wrote an influential anti-Coors article for the San Francisco Bay Times, a gay weekly. The article fingered the Castle Rock Foundation, one of two philanthropic foundations started by the Coors family, as funneling Coors profits into conservative groups. At the time, the Castle Rock Foundation was largely financed by stocks it owned in the Coors Brewing Company and gave large grants to conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Research Foundation.

Shortly after the SF Bay Times article appeared, the Coors Brewing Company divested all stocks from both the Castle Rock Foundation and the Adolph Coors Foundation. According to SEC filings, Coors company profits no longer go into the two foundations. Coors officials maintain that the foundations simply raised enough money and became self-reliant on trust funds and donations. On the streets, however, the story is that gay-savvy Coors reps suggested the company pull the stocks immediately.

Mirken's findings never hit the mainstream press, but the article's content spawned bar-room chatter, Web gossip and, ultimately, more fuel for Kilhefner's Coors Boycott Committee.

According to its annual reports, the Heritage Foundation was created by Joseph Coors Sr. in 1973 with a $250,000 grant and serves as a think tank to champion the conservative agenda. Each year, Joe Sr. continues to chip in at least $100,000. (Last year, United Parcel Service and the Amway Corporation also made donations of more than $100,000.) The foundation's mission is to "formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principals of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." Heritage raised a record $43.8 million last year; with more than 200,000 members, it is one of the country's largest conservative steamrollers. Holland Coors, ex-wife of Joseph Coors Sr., sits on the board of trustees.

Since 1980, the foundation has periodically published its Mandate for Change, a small government wish list updated for various administrations. The 1998 Mandate for Change IV states: "Homosexuals are free to form their own lasting unions and make their own personal commitments to each other, but it trivializes marriage to give such unions the special protections of the law or the subsidies that are intended to help mothers and fathers raise children into upstanding citizens."

For its part, the Free Congress Research Foundation received $150,000 from Castle Rock last year, just as it has each year for the past five years. The group, led by Paul Weyrich -- the man who coined the phrase "Moral Majority" for Pat Robertson -- also believes strongly in the Judeo-Christian family ethic. The foundation was once chaired by Jeffrey Coors, son of Joseph Sr. In 1987, the group's senior contributing scholar, Father Enrique Rueda, authored Gays, AIDS and You, which vilified homosexuals and chastized the gay movement for "using the AIDS crisis to pursue its political agenda. This, in turn, threatens not only our values but our lives."

"Once you understand the agenda of the homosexual movement," Rueda wrote, "you will probably perceive it as a terrible threat -- to ourselves, our children, our communities, our country."

Yet in a letter to FCF members this past February, Weyrich shocked his right-wing supporters when he conceded that the conservative right had "lost the cultural war" in America and suggested a new, less coarse, tack for the political group.

The Castle Rock Foundation had the same board of trustees as the other Coors family trust, the Adolph Coors Foundation, which gave heartily to minority and children's groups. William Coors, Holland Coors, Jeffrey Coors and Peter Coors helped oversee both foundations. It appeared that the family was simply playing musical chairs to continue funding right-wing groups with Coors profits, but the Castle Rock Foundation existed for the purpose of making donations outside of Colorado, while the Adolph Coors Foundation was started by Coors family members who stipulated that its money be spent in-state only.

Today the trail of Coors profits going into conservative pockets is easily traced through campaign contributions.

In 1998, the Coors Brewing Company gave $62,500 to candidates; 93 percent of that money went to Republicans. Candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Robert Livingston of California each received $1,000 donations. (By comparison, Anheuser-Busch spent twice as much money on politics, with 65 percent going to Republicans. And the $62,500 from Coors was a pittance compared to the $529,624 US West spent to sway politicians of all persuasions.)

In the past, Coors company spokesmen occasionally tried to appeal to the gay community by noting that Dallas Coors, the gay son of William Coors, frequently gave money to groups such as the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign Fund. Dallas Coors died in 1995. Still, it's the actions and beliefs held by other family members that have always angered Coors's critics.

In 1988, Joseph Coors Jr. told the Los Angeles Times that homosexuals were an abomination in the eyes of God. He added that all five of his brothers shared his beliefs.

"I believe in the Bible," he said. "And the Bible specifically outlines certain sins, and it calls them that. Not just homosexual behavior, but anything else that gets in the way with your walk with the Lord. But a person's religion is such a personal thing. So, the fact that I choose to believe the Bible is God's word certainly doesn't mean I think gay people, or anybody else, has to believe it, too. It's their choice. What I don't like, though, is if they wanna persecute me for mine."

But if one wants to boycott Joe Coors Jr. and his profit margin, the task can be difficult. He's the president of ACX Technologies, a company that manufactures consumer packaging and ceramics products. The company has several subsidiaries, and net sales rose to $501 million last quarter. According to SEC filings, the Coors Brewing Company accounted for 12.1 percent of ACX's business in 1998. In January 1998, ACX bought the Britton Group, an international packaging group that folds cartons and plastics, for $420 million. With its new acquisition, ACX now provides carton folding, packaging and graphics for hundreds of consumer products such as Tide, Crest, Wheaties, Cheerios, Pepperidge Farms Goldfish, Marlboro cigarettes and Hamburger Helper.

Joseph Coors Jr. has been vacationing and was unavailable for comment, according to his daughter Holly Coors, ACX's spokesperson. Peter Coors, the only Coors family member still involved in the day-to-day operations of the Coors Brewing Company, declined requests for an interview.

Kilhefner acknowledges that individual Coors family members have a right to spend their money as they choose. He insists, however, that purchasing Coors products keeps the Coors kin wealthy one way or the other. And, he adds, "there is a responsibility on gay people not to support Coors when it validates our own oppression and tries to destroy everything that gays and lesbians have worked hard to create for the last thirty years. What they're giving to gay organizations is chump change. It's an advertising campaign to deceive the gay community into believing they have changed when, in fact, they have not, in any way."

On the last night of July, inside a circus tent behind the Ramada Inn Hotel on East Colfax Avenue, two men are standing on a stage, their arms stretched out, their legs spread. Each man has 220 black clothespins grabbing his skin (the clothespins are attached in strings of twenty called "zippers"; each man sports nine zippers' worth of clothespins).

While teams of stage hands work like pit crews to fix the zippers just right, 200 or so gay men in various black-leather outfits cheer for the duo. The crowd is uniformly macho. Thick mustaches, open vests and tight chaps are mandatory.

Chopnik stands stage right, watching the "Clothes Pin Fantasy." The fantasy abruptly concludes when the stage hands simultaneously yank the zippers off the two men. The reams of clothespins snap around briefly, then fall to the stage floor. One of the men lets out a shriek of pain that chills the tent for a moment, then the crowd erupts with ecstatic applause.

The act is part of Thunder in the Mountains, Denver's annual leather convention. For the first time in its twenty-year history, this year's Thunder in the Mountains is sponsored by Coors Light. It's Chopnik's doing.

Taking Coors dollars and letting the brewer hang its banners on the side of the tent was a simple decision for Richard Dockter, co-owner of Thunder in the Mountains and one of the men who participated in the Clothes Pin Fantasy. To refuse the Coors cash, which some gay organizations do with great pride, would be silly, he says.

"That deprives anybody from making a change in their lives. I'm certainly not going to slam the door in their face if they want to sponsor us now. It may be seen by some that they are throwing scraps our way, but to me, it indicates the possibility of permanent change. And that's all any of us want. To be seen as regular people with the same rights as anyone else. If they want to extend their hand to the gay community, I'm certainly not going to bite it."

On the same night, eight men compete in a pageant for Colorado's Mr. Leather title. Before he relinquishes his statewide title (Chopnik's International Mr. Leather tenure runs until May 2000), Chopnik takes the stage at Thunder in the Mountains to thank all the supporters of the weekend-long event. He graciously thanks the sponsors: the Triangle Bar, Mr. S. Leather and save-it-for-last Coors.

"Oh, boy," he begins. "This next sponsor...You know, I can only say one thing about this next sponsor. Talk about bringing a community together. Talk about moving forward. Talk about a community and a company striving and moving forward together." He makes a brief pause to build the suspense. "And that is Coors."

There's not much applause. Not like when he praised the Triangle. Certainly not like when the clothespins hit the floor. Sensing the Coors sell needs a little more oomph, Chopnik adds a touch of polish.

"You know, it's these corporate relationships with our community that are going to make a better community for all of us. So I just want to say" -- he raises his voice for the sendoff -- "hats off to Coors for all it has done!"

This time the crowd cheers loudly.

Chopnik doesn't pitch Coors just for the cheers. He doesn't take money for the plugs, either. For Chopnik, it's personal.

During the Amendment 2 debate, Chopnik heard it wherever he traveled. "Oh, you're from Colorado," they would gush, pitying him. They asked him what it was like living in the Hate State. They flexed their political and economic muscles by boycotting Colorado -- just like Harvey Milk knew they could.

And it got to Chopnik. He didn't like having the rest of the gay community looking down their noses at someone from Colorado. "When you're a gay man from Colorado, you get asked these questions continually."

So he set out to remove the stigma. When he competed for International Mr. Leather in Chicago in May, he told the judges, "If selected, I want to bring my message to the rest of the gay community." He told them that the city and county of Denver has anti-discrimination laws on the books to protect gays, that the state is not overflowing with hate. (Chopnik's employer, the Denver Museum of Natural History, where he works as an event coordinator, allows him time off to travel and supports his activism in his community.) And he told them that the gay community receives support from valued corporate sponsors.

When Chopnik received his official International Mr. Leather vest, he had it personalized to include a large "C" identical to the one on the Colorado state flag. "Wherever I go, Colorado comes with me."

Bruce Chopnik started wearing leather in 1989, when he lived in the Bay Area and went to the Folsom Street Fair. Up until then, he'd been a square in khaki shorts and a T-shirt. Someone told him to join the party and slipped a leather band around his arm. "It has to do with the way you feel in leather and the way you feel about yourself while you're wearing it," he says. "I have a tendency to feel a little more confident about myself, a little more masculine. It's physical and psychological -- how you feel toward other people when you're wearing it."

Chopnik knows that some of the Coors family members are still sending their cash to political candidates who oppose the gay community. But he respects their choice as individuals. What peeves him is the insistence of those who want to keep the boycott alive.

"Excuse me, why fucking live thirty years in the past? Why not acknowledge what's happening today and salute them for the progress they've made?

"It's private money," Chopnik explains, sounding exhausted. "Whatever you do with your money is your own business. What matters is what the corporation spends its money on. And Coors, the company, is accountable to the community. You'd be boycotting a lot of things if you held every business to the same scrutiny as Coors.

"You know what? If you're going to boycott the product, then you'd better boycott me, because you know what? I'm part of the product."

Coors is carried in all of Denver's 32 gay bars, and local sales have increased in the last three years, says Triangle manager Phil Guy. "They're doing a lot more advertising, that's for sure," he says. "All of us realize what happened a long time ago, and so does Coors. We accept the apology." The Triangle goes through about ten kegs and 25-35 cases of Coors every week; two years ago, Guy says, the bar averaged two kegs and ten cases per week. "The only people I hear complain about Coors come from California," he says.

In fact, it's still harder to find a bottle of Coors in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood than it is to find an ocean in Colorado. So when Chopnik gets to San Francisco in September, he wants to host an informal gathering, a Colorado reception. He wants people to come meet him so he can tell them about Colorado and its progressive community members, such as Coors. Chopnik has received phone calls from Castro business owners willing to host the event knowing that Coors is a possible sponsor.

Chopnik is talking to Coors representatives, asking them, "How far do you want to go?"

Coors has been waiting a long time to get inside this tent. That Chopnik eagerly waves them in keeps Coors flacks grinning. "This is his own choice," says company spokesman Joe Fuentes. "It's all a matter of choices. It's a little like when John Elway says he drinks Coors beer when he's not on a commercial. It's just him saying, 'This is what I do. This is what I like.'"

But not quite. When Adolph Coors started his company, he didn't exactly envision using a photo of International Mr. Leather sucking down Coors to sell his beer.

Since 1973, when word spread that Coors was poison to the queer community, the company has been playing defense. Now it plays offense. The boycott may have shoved Coors into the gay market, but when the company fell face first, it opened its eyes and saw a lot of beer drinkers with a lot of money.

Gay consumers are product-loyal and have plenty of cash, according to a study by Simmons Market Research Bureau and Mulryan/Nash, a gay ad agency. The study found 38 percent of gay men and women drink domestic light beers, compared to 24 percent of the overall population. Gays are also more likely to drink a beer that is marketed to them directly, the study found. In the past decade, Coors has stepped up its advertising in gay publications. In one national print ad (which the SF Bay Times refused to run), three men sit a bar table -- one white, one black, one Hispanic -- with the caption, "As far as we're concerned, only the facts need to be straight."

And it was no coincidence that in October last year, Coors hired Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing firm that specializes in pitching to the gay market. Witeck-Combs comes with stellar credentials. In 1993, the firm took on American Airlines as a client after the airline suffered from bad press in the handling of two HIV-positive passengers. Anyone down with the gay community avoided the airline. Witeck-Combs did a makeover -- but only after American Airlines executives pledged a "commitment" to the gay community. The airline started donating cash to pro-gay organizations and AIDS causes. Last year American Airlines received a leadership award from AIDS Action, an advocacy group. Now the company is seen as gay-friendly.

Coors has a similar record of support for the gay community.

In 1993 the company started LAGER, a resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgenderd employees. Of the company's nearly 6,000 employees in this country, about 24 are LAGER members. Tom Capra, LAGER's leader, says the eighteen members in Golden meet monthly to discuss how Coors can assist with gay activities like Pride Fest and National Coming Out Day in October. They also meet to "promote positive understanding, relationships, personal and professional development of members," Capra says.

In May 1995, the Coors board of directors voted unanimously to offer domestic-partner benefits to gay employees. The action made Coors the 21st publicly traded company in the country to offer the benefits for its gay and lesbian employees. Company officials won't say how many employees are gay or how many partners receive the benefits, noting that that's personal information.

Also in 1995, V Management, a gay investment company, ranked the brewer among the top twenty gay-friendly companies in America. At Coors, HIV-positive employees retain all medical benefits after they are no longer able to work.

And the once-dreaded Coors dollars have made their way into gay festivals and organizations across the country. Coors helped sponsor Pride Fests in thirteen different cities last year, as well as the Gay Softball World Series and Aspen Gay and Lesbian Ski Week.

At Denver's Pride Fest 1998, the first year Coors helped sponsor the event, 100 people marched with the LAGER contingent.

The AFL-CIO called off its boycott way back in 1987, but still, it's hard to get props when you're Coors.

"Coors is such an easy target," says Mary Cheney, who oversees Coors's financial expenditures on the gay and lesbian market. "It's sort of become this great evil incarnate that the Coors Boycott Committee has decided to hold up as a target for all evil. At what point do you declare victory and move on?"

Now Coors is too gay. The Family Research Council, opposers of all things queer, has listed Coors as a foe to traditional values. Last year, AIDS funeral picketer Fred Phelps from Kansas held a one-man boycott outside the Golden brewery.

Yet as recently as July 28, an unidentified female phoned the Long Beach Gay & Lesbian Community Center to place a bomb threat. "I'm really pissed off," she told the operator. "I saw a flier that says you're accepting Coors money. If you guys do take Coors money, don't expect your center to be around much longer, because we will definitely blow the fucker up."

"It's really tempting to put the Coors Boycott Committee and the far-right extremist groups in the same room and figure out which one of them gets to be mad at us," says Cheney.

Kilhefner says Coors is using a divide-and-conquer strategy that, on the one hand, is appealing to gay consumers to get their money, and on the other is continuing to fund oppression of gays.

"They are doing it on purpose," Kilhefner insists. "It's a marketing strategy designed to deceive. Things that are happening in the gay community today, people would have been up in arms about twenty years ago. This new generation is apolitical. Coors has millions and millions of dollars to spend on this issue -- the Coors Boycott Committee has fifteen people who volunteer their time."

Bruce Chopnik has just returned from a weekend in Houston where, as International Mr. Leather, he was sold at a benefit auction for 55,000 Beef Bucks ($550). The temperature in the south Texas town reached 120 degrees. "Not good weather for leather," Chopnik muses.

The winner of the auction enjoyed one free drink at the bar with International Mr. Leather. Luckily for the bartender, Coors Light was on draw. "I told them while I was on stage," Chopnik says of his potential bidders, "'I'll be ordering a Coors Light.'"

Chopnik drives by the Triangle to attend a Sunday afternoon Beer Bust sponsored by Coors. Patrons pay $5 per person for as much Coors Extra Gold as they can drink; some of the men take it literally.

Mr. Leather makes his rounds, floating from group to group, slapping backs and sharing hugs. Outside on the patio, where a spray mist cools down the steamy crowd, the music is pumping loud and the boys in short shorts and tank tops are getting drunk. Chopnik buys a hot dog, grabs a beer and settles in a corner. Across the patio, two men wearing leather vests and leather jockstraps act as targets behind a chicken-wire fence while others throw water balloons at them. The balloons, which sell for $1 apiece, are meant to raise money for a charity.

A Coors Light banner waves above the party, and beer boys in leather shorts walk around, filling up red cups as quickly as they empty.

Chopnik says he doesn't take money from the Coors Brewing Company -- and Coors officials aren't going to let anyone forget that anytime soon, either. The unofficial mantra for flacks at the company is that International Mr. Leather supports Coors because he believes in Coors.

But the subject has come up before, leaving Chopnik to wonder, "Would I take money from Coors to do an advertising campaign?"

He taps an index finger on his chest.

"That's a choice," he says, "I would have to make for myself."

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