Cooper Hipp was inside the gate watering his garden when I arrived. Was this a domestic tableau framed for my benefit? Wouldn’t be the first time I’d arrived to conduct an interview at the subject’s home to be greeted graciously but with premeditated expression. No problem. That’s what I’d do if I were under the scope.
Once inside their classic Florida ranch, I am introduced only in passing to “the husband” who looks up from his work desk with a brief smile. So it’s to be one of those “husband within earshot in the next room” interviews. Wouldn’t be my first. There was Ray Boltz, Chuck Nicholls, Carlo Infante, Dermot Meagher, Brian McNaught, Mark King and John McNeill to name but a few. It’s what I’d do with my husband. Keep him in the kitchen cooking something aromatic rather than risk him jumping in to correct my tailored narrative.
Hipp is wearing a tight gauzy tee shirt bearing a faded HRC logo, displaying both his activism and his fine physique. Smart dressing for the work at hand, a profile of a complex man who has continuously stepped out of his shell to embrace newly discovered realities within himself. Earlier in my car, I thought he’d probably present himself in biker gear, but other than a mismatched leather belt (brown) and braided bracelet (black) he was embraced by just the more common “cotton, the fabric of our life.”
We sat down in shade by the pool, where I began to unpack the questions that would introduce you to a man who fascinated me and had an unusual story. That is, after all, why I had asked for this. Over glasses of chilled water (I laughed when he disclosed that he had poured himself a drink of something stronger before my arrival.) we began to sort out the deceptions from the truth, placing each in its separate pile on the table between us. He spoke as if shuffling a deck of tarot cards, turning over only those to which I pointed, revealing startling and sometimes painful images. With luck and a little skill, Cooper Hipp would be surprised by what his own hand revealed. That is what happened. If not, you wouldn’t have this to read.
He tells me that he grew up in comfortable circumstances and was afforded a private school education that seeded within him a sense of propriety.
“I was always a pleaser. I’ll be whoever you want me to be. Right schools, right MBA, right jobs, all early in life. At 28, I was the largest video game buyer in the world. I played by the rules. I fell in love by the rules. I was already out and living in Japan when I met the woman who became my [now ex-] fiancé,” he said. “I was out in a very sophisticated way. I remember a moment in Japan when an elderly lady dressed in a traditional kimono walked up to me and placed her hands on my shoulders. I asked my translator what she said. He told me she said, ‘You are like water in a stream filled with rocks. You move around them.’ I didn’t know what it meant at the time. Now I do.”
In Kentucky, he came out to his father who was on his way to go duck hunting. He accepted his son’s truth. His mother later told him that his father had then gone to meet his buddies at the duck blind where he said to them, “Coop just told me he is gay. Let me tell you this. If he has any trouble from anyone in this town, they will have to answer to me.”
“But there is a bad update to that story. During all the years since I had since I came out, I always dated only the ‘right’ guys. Prominent men, actors. But when I told my father I was getting married to a man, no response. He wouldn’t talk to me for many months,” Hipp said. “And then, I found out my father contracted cancer. I reached out to him. Still no response. Both my brother and my mother had died young. Then I found out that I had gotten cancer from the common HPV virus. I finally got through to my father and said, ‘Listen, we have only each other left. You have cancer, I have cancer, we have to get through this together.’ That did it.”
Hipp was never sure why his father had shut him out. He thinks that perhaps it was because in announcing his marriage to a man, he was stepping out of his “well managed gay persona” and entering his own skin. He was breaking the rules.
“My father could deal with the theoretical gay me, but not the real one,” he said. “And, certainly not the one with a closetful of hidden leather gear!”
Hipp breaks the narrative to recall an earlier gay lover of six years who cheated on him relentlessly but was full of hostile accusations about imagined infidelities. That lover accused Hipp of bringing crab lice into their bed when it was actually the other way around. Hipp had been 100 percent faithful. A subsequent horrendous relationship of ten years was sexual for only the first few.
Hipp again explains that he had a vision of expectations defining a relationship as a structure in which one keeps up appearances. The first relationship had been very abusive. Hipp said that in the course of the second one, “I seemed to hit rock bottom, to use the terms of AA. I had gotten my father through treatment for alcoholism, and through the sudden death of my mother by stroke and the sudden death by heart attack of my brother who had severe psychological problems, holding my mother hostage at one point. I had trusted my second partner financially and he had abused that trust. I had literally no money despite having an excellent job. I didn’t see what was happening to me. I kept up the façade. I had to sell stuff on eBay just to buy a plane ticket to escape to Florida.
“I met my husband, Mick, on an app called RECON. I had dipped a toe into the leather world when I had lived in LA. I used to wear the gear only for myself, in private. RECON is a leather community,” he said. “Mick was sex-positive instead of sex-shaming about leather. I had never before had that experience. He gave me freedom without judgment. I did a photo shoot for “Leatherwerks” in gear! I was openly in leather. I was finally writing my own book. I was a runner-up in the Lambda Mens Calendar contest! My Facebook page is now fully reconciled with everything I am.”
“I remember the first time I looked at myself in the mirror in full leather. I loved what I felt. So liberating. I was seeing my real self enhanced. I wasn’t just Cooper. I was Neon Cooper, a long way from where I was. I was no longer stuck. Now, I get into my gear to celebrate myself and my victory over cancer and shame. I hear from so many men who still feel stuck and need to find their way out. It wasn’t an easy road for me. I remember when my father told me he had found my leather gear in my closet. I felt like a child punished.”
How did Hipp overcome his terrible challenges? He doesn’t know.
“Boy, did that Japanese woman call it,” he said.
He plans to start a venture in which he would help men become “unstuck.” He is often contacted by men from all over the world who have read his story online and want to know the keys to his survival. He is just 47 years old. He has not yet looked at all the cards in his hand. Some of them will bring happiness to himself and others.