The New Age of Leather

posted by Madame Bubby

International Mr. Leather 2019

Now that I am in the autumnal phase of my life (early autumn, mind you), and International Mr. Leather is fast upon us (its fortieth year!), I share again a paragraph I wrote a few years ago about this event:

“The leather community has entered a new age. It's no longer so much on the margins, even of the gay community. I even argue it's lost something of its edginess, its element of taboo and danger. Where do I, who was trained by a master who was influenced by hardcore Old Guard, fit into this picture? I'm still exploring that question, but I hold fast to the core values of mutual respect/courtesy and a desire to learn and grow in the scene I experienced through the years with the many leathermen I've known since that first day in 1991 when I entered the leather mart.”

I still agree with many of the ideas in the paragraph, but I am revisiting with another concern, one that is more focused on demographic. To what extent is the leather/BDSM community, still primarily gay and male, aging out? Or, perhaps, the real question could be, how is transforming itself as its social and cultural context changes?
 

International Mr. Leather, 1979
International Mr. Leather, 1979

Some of the changes that have developed I see paralleling with mainstream social progressive movements. 2010 was particularly significant when Tyler McCormick competed as Mr. Rio Grande Leather. When he won the contest, he made history three ways: first transgender IML, first IML to use a wheelchair, and first IML from New Mexico.
 

Tyler McCormick
Tyler McCormick

Yet, I've also noticed that the traditional leather/BDSM club social structure, based upon I claim a kind of lodge/fraternity model, seems to be less popular than before. Perhaps I am landing on a cliché or stereotype here rather than a more nuanced interpretation, but these groups are aging, and younger guys (not just millenials) aren't necessarily seeing them as a prime, exclusive space to discover, learn about, and grow in, their complex sexuality.

The line of mentoring I experienced in this community seems to be less certain. Just because a young guy says Daddy, teach me, doesn't necessarily mean anymore a serious ritual of initiation. It could mean a quick fuck. It may have always been that way to some extent, and gay sexual spaces have always been commodified in various respects (thinking of bathhouses, another space that seems to be much less ubiquitous than before), but this is the age of nanosecond ratings, the Yelp/Amazon world. Of course technology has played a part in a fluidity that risks diffusiveness, and of course social media apps have changed drastically how one lives physically and mentally as a sexual person.

Perhaps the gay male leather/BDSM club, used to be the center of this world, forced in the past to into a fortress-like mentality because of its taboo activities in a world just starting to tolerate LGBTQ persons, is now shifting to one point on a spectrum.

Overall, I am concerned that future generations will forget about or even claim is outmoded this point of origin in spaces like the Gold Coast Leather Bar and the Chicago Hellfire Club. But without this history of external and internal courage and danger and respect and conflict, there wouldn't be persons today engaged in transforming it.
 

Chicago Hellfire Club

International Mr. Leather, 1979
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A Glimpse Into Early Gay Leather Contests

A Glimpse Into Early Gay Leather Contests

 

Mr. Gold coast contest winners

It started in Chicago, as long ago as 1972 (only a few years after the Stonewall revolutionary event), on a pool table at the Gold Coast Bar. The first leather contest. The winner was John Lunning.

Chuck Renslow, now a legendary figure, was the driving force in the development of the whole gay leather culture. After this event, he soon discovered that one way to put a public face on what was going in the backrooms and other shadowy places was by founding what some claim was (and still is) a “leather beauty contest.” Think: kind of a Mr. America take-off but add bdsm-related gear and activities; anything to grab the audience's attention (and cocks). In fact, one anecdotal source claims that at the first contest “slaves” were dragged onto the stage.

Soon the contest became so popular that it outgrew the bar, and in 1979 the first official International Mr. Leather contest occurred at a local hotel.

A dozen candidates in full leather and swimwear (changed to jockstraps in later years), paraded before an audience of about 300 men.

David Kloss, an oil rig worker (now that's once macho occupation!) representing The Brig bar in San Francisco, won the first title.

According to Jack Fritscher in the September 1979 issue of Drummer Magazine:

“The other men, daring to put their pecs and ass on the world’s toughest Chorus Line, were: Terry Hunter, Carol’s Speakeasy, Chicago; Reg Simpson, RR, Miami; Donald Rahn, Foxhole, Denver; Stan Masterson, Landmark, Daytona Beach, FL; Daan [sic] Jefferson, Gold Coast, Chicago; Jim Kazlik, Wreckroom, Milwaukee; Harry Shattuck, South Town Lumber Co., Denver; Bill Maggio, Harder Than Hell Productions, Chicago; Jesse Capello [second IML Runner-up], Café LaFitte in Exile/Coral Bar, New Orleans; Durk Dehner [first IML Runner-up who was a Drummer model from Lou Thomas’ Target Studio, and future founder of Tom of Finland Foundation], American Uniform Association, L. A.; Bruce Wachholder, Touche, Chicago; David Kloss, the Brig, San Francisco. The judges were Chuck Gockenmeyer, General Manager of Leatherman Inc, New York; Robert Dunn, Advertising Director, Drummer magazine; Dom Orejudos (Etienne); Tom Gora, In Touch magazine; and Lou Thomas, Target Studio, New York.”

The list above seems a roll call of both men and organizations who have now become iconic in the leather community.

The contestants, Jack Fritscher wrote in the September 1979 Drummer Magazine, typified “the new homomasculinity.”vintage Gold Coast ad


The seventies were indeed the era of “gay macho,” popularized (and perhaps even satirized in the Village People phenomenon). But rather than just thinking of it as an era of “guys gone wild,” one also needs to understand that also during this time guys into leather/bdsm were establishing their own communities. The seventies saw the foundation of the Chicago Hellfire Club (its first Inferno event took place in September 1976 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Club). Other organizations that began in this period was M.A.F.I.A. (a club for guys into fisting) and Rodeo Riders, a social group for guys who enjoy sex, gear, and each other in a variety of social settings. These three clubs are still going strong now!

Chicago, with is unique mix of Midwestern communal values and gritty individualism, apparently was the ideal place for this movement to take shape.

Thanks to jackfritscher.com and the Leather Archives & Museum for much of the material in this blog.

If you're in or traveling to Chicago for this year's IML, don't miss Men's Room at the Bijou, presented by the Leather Archives, on Saturday May 23!

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