The people closest to Jon Letke remember him as an animal lover, a passionate advocate for the leather community and a supportive friend.
Letke, 26, took his own life the evening of July 24 following a long struggle with depression. Known in the leather community as Nizzi Greatpup, he was the 2014 Mr Leather Ottawa (MLO) titleholder and a finalist in the International Mr Leather (IML) competition. He had moved to Ottawa from Toronto in 2013 and quickly became a well-known figure in the community.
Originally from Bowmanville, Letke spent time as a teenager working at a zoo, where he trained tigers, fostering his lifelong love of animals. “He lived at the zoo, so he would always have . . . animals with him every time of the day,” says MLO 2013 Karl Couture, who had dated and remained close friends with Letke.
He was a devoted pet owner and could frequently be found walking his dog, Cerberus, an Alaskan malamute, in his Ottawa neighbourhood. “The way that Jon had trained him, he was a service animal,” Couture says. When he was living in Toronto, Letke would often take Cerberus to hospitals and nursing homes to work with patients.
Couture says a couple from the leather community are now caring for Cerberus.
Letke was a proponent of puppy play, a subset of the fetish community where participants take on canine mannerisms and interact with each other based on roles that include alpha-pups, beta-pups, handlers and strays. A strong advocate for the lifestyle, Letke worked to educate others and dispel the myths and stereotypes associated with it, particularly within the leather community.
His death came as a shock to both the community at large and those closest to him. “It’s been extremely hard,” says Letke’s partner, Steven Loki. “[I’m] just trying to follow through with things that we had talked about and honour him the best way I can.”
The pair met at the Mr Leather Ottawa competition in 2014, where Letke was a contestant; Loki, who lives in Arizona, was a judge. In late March, after Letke’s win, the two began a long-distance relationship. “We would Skype every night, which is one of the things that I’m missing terribly right now,” Loki says. “Even though it was long-distance, we fell asleep to each other every night.”
In his role as MLO, Letke strove to bring members of Ottawa’s leather and fetish communities together and to promote an understanding of the lifestyle within the broader community. He was especially passionate about making the scene feel welcoming to younger members. In a November 2013 interview with Xtra, before winning the MLO title, Letke said he believed Ottawa’s small size contributed to a close-knit community.
“The best titleholders I’ve ever seen are ambassadors and not in it for themselves,” Loki says. “[Jon] exemplified that. He wanted to show not only the gay leather community, but the leather and fetish community as a whole.”
The time Letke spent in Arizona, where same-sex couples do not have the right to marry, inspired him to encourage the Ottawa community to band together over common goals. “That was one of the things he really wanted to see in Ottawa, to see the communities come together and not just be nitpicking at each other.”
As a leatherman who was also a member of the pup community, Loki says, Letke struggled in some cases to gain acceptance. Although he was devoted to promoting tolerance within the community, he found it very stressful.
Couture says Letke’s devotion to the titleholder role meant that he took on many jobs himself and didn’t always seek out outlets to relieve his stress. “He felt like he had to do everything, because that’s who he was.”
Incidences of depression and suicide are statistically higher in the LGBT community than in the general population. In the aftermath of Letke’s death, Loki says he’s had many conversations with others who have experienced similar feelings.
“It definitely opened up my eyes a little bit more to seeing how prevalent of an issue it [is]. I stopped counting how many people have told me they had either considered, attempted or survived.”
He says more support is needed within the community, particularly for titleholders, whose role is very much in the public eye. “The community definitely needs to talk about it more,” he says, adding that holding a title can be an experience that is simultaneously very rewarding and very frustrating. “I wish I had known how much support or, in some cases, lack of support Jon had received.”
“When it comes to depression, what I’ve seen and learned is that there’s no [easy] fix to it,” Couture says. “It’s a continuous battle no matter how strong a person is.”
Couture and Loki have discussed setting up a permanent support system for the leather community as a way of honouring Letke’s legacy by encouraging members to reach out to each other.
A memorial fund set up in Letke’s name has raised more than $4,000 to cover expenses associated with his death. Any excess will be donated to the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre and the Friendly Giants Dog Rescue.
Couture and Loki say the leather community plans to distribute yellow suicide-awareness ribbons during Pride, something that was also done at Halifaxride and events in the United States, as the loss has rippled through the international leather community.
The MLO position will remain vacant until a new titleholder is appointed in November, Couture says, but 2014 first-runner-up Doug Saunders will take on some responsibilities until then.
“He was never a small person,” Couture says of Letke. “His energy was boundless; it was just always positive. He would enter a room and it would light up no matter how dark it was, and everyone saw that . . . He was a very big person in the community.”
Letke will be interred at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, where a maple tree will be planted in his memory.