“…here at International Ms. Leather I am going to propose something astonishingly insensitive considering the venue.
When Chuck Renslow came up with the idea for the first Mr. Gold Coast contest, which was to become the International Mr. Leather Contest, it was not to create a leader in the leather community. It was not to elect a speaker, a historian, a figure of responsibility and public consumption. It wasn’t even to be able to parade a bunch of hot guys around the bar. It was to sell beer. The contest was a distraction, an enticement, a spectacle to get guys to settle in for a while and spend money and time at the bar.
It’s been 30 years now. I put it to you as gently as someone like me can…isn’t it time we moved past popularity contests and put infotainment in the right place? The new titleholder doesn’t need the permission or cheers of the community to do any of the basic things I outlined for anyone here to do. You all, as individuals, do not need a sash or a panel of judges to grant you the ability to learn, grow, make change and question authority. I put it to you; if the energy gathered here for a weekend were spent on just making a happy space for leatherwomen and their allies to come and connect, to spend some money and make some money, to teach and learn, to entertain and be entertained, would that be so bad? Could the barely functioning system of contests change instead to something celebrating achievements of other kinds? Where are our business leaders, our philanthropists, our social workers and teachers and librarians?…”
That’s me up there – in a speech I made at IMsL in 2008. I’d already given up judging contests for several years before that, disenchanted with the process and the results. But since Glenda Rider, (executive producer, IMsL) is a personal friend, I agreed to make the speech at her event, figuring what the hell; might as well bell the cat.
Then two years later, I found myself judging International MR. Leather. Which was, by the way, a blast. Here is that story.
There’s a vast difference between the women’s and men’s leather contest worlds. Many people don’t know that for the first round of International Ms. Leather winners, bankruptcy followed their title year. Travel funds? They were lucky to get a prize basket. Sponsorships? Beer companies and official airlines were – and remain – unfound. Regional contests were few and far between, and many were actually designed to create a “winner” who would go compete at IMsL the next MONTH. Way back in 1992, I actually produced a leather contest that was designed to be after IMsL so that my winner had a year to serve in her local title before moving on compete in a national one. I was told I was insane for doing that – no one would want to be a titleholder for two years running.
Women’s contests do not get the money, the crowds, or the community support that the men’s contests do – and sometimes, that’s damn little. I can’t remember how many times I was present for a contest (any contest, men/women/couples/etc.) where the contestants were recruited the week (or the day!) before the event, so they would have “someone” running. And of course, many of those last minute recruits went on to win, some by default.
And then there were times when I did judge a contest with a decent array of contestants only to find I hoped no one would win. The lesser of two evils might have been a relief for some of those torturous events, where I really wanted a “none of the above” option on my paperwork. And really, who hasn’t known a titleholder who just made you wonder what on earth the judges had been sniffing the night they vetted that moron/asshole/team of delusional nitwits. For every outstanding leader type of person on the leather title circuit there seemed to be at least a dozen pretty boys/girls in borrowed fetish gear, and leather community green belts who thought they knew it all after doing it online for the past two years. Add to this the number of titleholders who burned out and left the scene after their title tours, and it was easy to just decline invitations and focus on my teaching activities instead.
And then Chuck called.
And that makes a difference.
Just as when Glenda called, I said yes, so I said yes to Chuck Renslow. And not because he’s a personal friend – Chuck and I have met maybe a dozen times over the years, and he did come to a reading I did once. But come on, it’s Chuck Renslow. For all its dysfunction, our leather scene exists partly because of this man. The very image of a leatherman is iconic because he helped make it so. As I said many times to those who asked why I was doing this – I owe Chuck. When he calls, I go.
I could also argue about how IML is in fact the largest, best supported leather pageant in the world, that the winners do tend to be well supported by the community and there is no dearth of contestants, etcetera, but really, those are rationalizations, not reasons. My reason was to pay my karmic debt to Chuck.
Frankly, I didn’t expect much. Fifty gorgeous men in leather clothing answering questions about sex and politics and then strutting their stuff – that’s what I expected. I already knew that many of them would not actually be into SM, let alone DS relationships. I already knew asking them about the last book they read or which leatherwoman they admired would probably be a mistake. (I can’t tell you how many contestants I have seen who actually told me they NEVER read books. NEVER. I gave up asking that question.) I was fairly comfortable knowing most of them would have never heard of me, let alone read my books – after all, there was less of a chance for them to try to schmooze me. I expected to get pleasantly dazed by eye candy, enjoy a good show, and see some old friends.
And what do you know, I wound up being a bystander to history. I had a fun time. And ultimately? I still believe our community can spend much of our contest driven money, energy and focus on better things. Especially the women’s leather scene. Glenda is working hard to make IMsL the kind of tourist attraction/extravaganza IML is, and if anyone has a chance of doing it, she will. But when a local community needs to beg people three days before a contest to run, when the winner has to beg for basic support like a travel fund and event scholarships, and basically has to work FOR their title instead of working their title for something else, when improper people win because there isn’t anyone better who wants to submit to the system, hell yeah, there are better uses for our time and money.
And about that history thing.
I am a harsh judge. (Ask anyone who every invited me to be on a panel.) I’ve read and heard some scuttlebutt on the selection of Mr. Tyler McCormick as IML and let me say this, without revealing any privileged information I am sworn to keep secret. No, I did not lobby my fellow judges to pick him because he’s FTM; in fact, there was no lobbying of any sort among the judges. Neither did I give him high scores for that reason – every score I gave out that weekend was earned by each individual man, and there were some damn impressive men in that top twenty, some of whom got higher scores from me in their different fields. The assertion “he was only picked because he’s disabled” is frankly stupid as shit, since, duh, he is not the first disabled contestant and wasn’t the only one in this year’s contestant gang. I even read that some people believe his walking out to deliver his 90 second speech was some sort of trick, as though someone who uses a wheelchair should never be able to walk, like it’s some zero sum ability challenge.
I’ll say what I thought about walking out, Tyler – that was some good stagecraft. And after witnessing dozens of titleholders whose speaking and stage presence was poor at best and distressing at worst, I appreciate a good show. One thing about Mr. McCormick was that every time I saw him, he had a surprise for me. That’s entertainment.
There were prettier men. And men with bigger dicks, no doubt. There were men with better fetish gear and men with excellent community service resumes. All in all, it was pleasant to find that I had dramatically overestimated the percentage of pretty-boys-in-borrowed-leather in the IML class of 2010. But when the numbers came out, I must say I was very pleased that my fellow judges sorted out this particular man in the top slot. “They’re gonna blame this on you,” a friend said to me afterwards. Oh, I certainly hope so. But it’s not true at all.
Does this mean I am going back to judging contests? Not necessarily. For one, I can’t afford it – judges spend days working and are not paid for it. I don’t owe vast karmic debts to too many other people organizing contests, so I think I am fairly well excluded from most invites. I am comfortable with that. IML was a unique experience; it allowed me to recall my early days in the leather scene and connect with some fine men, and yes, I even got to see some old friends. But my passion remains with writing, teaching, facilitating workshops and poking at my most beloved/maligned community, the DS folks.
So, congratulations to Tyler and his brothers, and a hearty shout out to my fellow judges and our team of handlers. Chuck – you put on a great show. As a once in a lifetime experience, I am glad I got to participate, disgruntled outsider or not.