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Historic IML Weekend in Chicago

by Pieter Claeys in Nightlife & Reports , 24 September 2010

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
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On Sunday the 30th of May a female-to-male transgender in a wheelchair won the 32nd edition of the prestigious International Mister Leather contest: an impression of a historic weekend in Chicago.

It started in 1978 as an erotic pageant contest in a local bar, thirty-two years later the International Mr. Leather Contest is a mega event that attracts thousands of leather men to Chicago, and which generates seven to eight million dollar annually.

A lot of visitors however, don’t come for the IML contest, or for the tourist attractions the city has to offer. Aside from the contest the IML weekend puts on an extensive market and many parties. In the evening the hosting hotel turns into an erotic Valhalla of sexual fetishes, freedom and activities.

At the contest itself things are very American with a sense of show and entertainment and numerous volunteers assisting the public and the candidates (which is, with usually around fifty candidates and thousands of visitors, quite necessary actually. Eventually nine jury members take three days of deliberating to choose twenty finalists and a winner.

There were seven European candidates this year, but again they didn’t stand a chance in the crowd of American contestants and the American style of the contest. They’re not necessarily after a “Tom of Finland” type; seventy percent of the final score is decided based on personality, presentation and content. This was emphasized even more this year by all the praise for last year’s winner. Jeffrey Payne had the honor of having an award named after him.

There were fifty-two contestants this year and as usual there were quite a few titleholders representing an American state, a club or a bar. Aside from the European participants there were two guys from Australia and for the first time in the contest’s history a candidate from South Africa took part.

Other than during the IML weekend the Chicago leather scene is not that different from ours. The Windy City bars lack customers too, and hardly anyone makes the effort to show up in fetish gear. On the eve of the contest a group of candidates decided to paint the town red.

At bar Touché, say the local Argos, the owner had taken care of snacks and a tasting session. There was also a lottery in which one could win a bicycle. In the back there was a second bar, with a metal cage in which some of us had their photographs taken in all sorts of sultry poses. It was easy to get to know each other, no sign of competitiveness yet.

If you wanted a little break from the crowd in Touché you could go to the nearby leather shop for some last minute purchases, even though the pink leather set in the glass case wasn’t really appealing. It was more exciting at the outside tables of JackHammer, a sort of combination of Getto and Prik. There was no other leather in sight but in the light of the full moon it got really cozy in the back of the outside area. Until the local Jennifer Hopelezz noticed what was going on and interrupted our first getting-to-know-each-other for some free cranberry shots. Title events are a typical American phenomenon, and IML is not the only “international” title one can win. There’s also an International Sir/Boy Contest, in which historical awareness is very important – and parallel to the IML there’s also an International Bootblack Contest.

These title events are criticized, the IML as well. The relevance of these kinds of titles is being debated, as well as the winners’ supposed responsibility and the entertainment aspect. Skeptics describe the IML as a typical American circus, and that it really is a circus became clear on Thursday.

After registration there were all kinds of procedures to get through, like getting numbers, going through the planning for the next days and being introduced to the jury. All candidates were given their itinerary for the following days, and these were full-on. We were left with hardly any time to check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, the many museums, Lake Michigan or Sears Tower...

In the evening a bus took us to a large bunker hidden behind some trees at a crossing. The guys from the Leather Archives and Museum treated us to a wonderful smorgasbord, including a dessert sur ésclave to raise money. There were panels with photo’s and texts, and there were erotic objects and instruments on display. I found a compact library housed in a few rooms, and in some sort of torture chamber I found what I can only describe as a very complicated little bench; it could be used for practically all sorts of things. Believe me, whoever designed that one is truly perverse.

After the buffet, Jeffrey Payne, last year’s International Mr. Leather was celebrated, which led to a series of hilarious and moving moments. It became very clear to us that it was going to be very hard to top the previous winner. The guy visited over fifty leather events on five continents (unfortunately the ash-cloud from Iceland kept him away from Amsterdam) and started a charity fund for sign language interpreters at leather events.

For me personally the evening was one of catching up with friends I’d met last year. I also enjoyed reconnecting with the board of the Leather Archives earlier. Around midnight a few New York bears took me on a cruising tour at the Cellblock bar, and later also in the hotel lobby. All types of fetish preferences were on show during the evening: from leather, rubber, army and firefighter outfits to animal suits or just naked in a chest on wheels with just your head and feet sticking out...

Friday night had the introduction and presentation of all contestants on the program, starting with a ceremony in which all candidates were to march in with their country’s flag. Everything went fine until the organization decided five minutes before the start that I should carry in the European flag instead of the Dutch one. Unfortunately nobody had thought of bringing a copy of “Ode An Die Freude” so I ended up marching in to the tunes of the “Wilhelmus” after all. The audience didn’t seem to notice though, I turned out to have quite a fan club out there who treated me to a very warm applause.

After a short night, during which I was kept awake by the shrieks of pain from the room across the hall, it was time for the most grueling part of the contest.

Presenting yourself in front of a committee, with nine members and in nine minutes, is hard enough already, but on top of that my interview was planned for eight o’clock in the morning, and the first question I was welcomed with was: “What do you think about the fact that some men in our scene like wearing Nazi uniforms, and that they’re playing sexual Nazi games?” I think I did alright, although I wondered whether the jury had read my “leather resume” I’d been required to send them in advance, because they didn’t ask me any questions on the history of the leather scene. They did ask my opinion on the ban of bareback porn in the fetish market and I had to come up with a tourist tour of Amsterdam.

That evening featured the Physical and Personality round. We had to parade around in gear on stage and answer a casual “light” question. The performances varied. Some were very serious about showing off their muscles; others had a stammer in their answers all of a sudden. They asked me what talent I still had to work on in the playroom. A kind of question I would have fielded with ease at a dinner party or something, but in the spotlight on a stage with a massive audience looking on, it took me by surprise. I was exhausted, which was probably why I just managed to joke my way through. After the second show night and third contest day I was happy to be able to go to bed.

As bright as the moon was on my first night, as bright was the sun on the last day of the contest. At noon a bus took us to a monumental theater where the American show of all shows was going to take place. They were placing a mega screen on which a spacecraft was going to land in 3D and they were also hanging chains for the Cirque du Cuir acts that had just won the parallel contest of LeatherFolk’s Got Talent.

If you wonder what’s so nice about taking part in such a circus, you should just enter yourself. With IML it’s not just about the contest, it’s also about the experience and the connection with the other candidates. Like in previous years, our “Class of 2010” was kept separate from the audience and visitors, so we hung out together for most of the time. It was no surprise that as the event wore on, we were getting closer and friendlier with one another. But the last hour of the final show many candidates spent alone, focusing on their speeches.

I lend my telephone’s timer to a German candidate, who was struggling with the length of his speech, and while lying on a bench with my eyes closed I went through what I wanted to say myself, and listened to a few speeches of others.

I was a bit disappointed when they announced the twenty finalists. But my disappointment quickly turned into happiness and I was simply content with being part of this unique and special experience. The show itself was very impressive, except for a singing former porn star, and the audience’s enthusiasm was infectious. Eventually Lance Holman, Mr. Leather San Francisco, won bronze, Jack Duke, Mr. Texas Leather, won silver. The golden ticket was for Tyler McCormick, a physically challenged female-to-male transgender.

Days after the contest the organization announced that it had raised 60,000 dollars for the Leather Archives & Museum over the weekend and that they were going to be the sole beneficiary of IML funds from then on. During the festival a documentary premiered on the history of IML called “Kink Crusaders.” That, and the victory of a transgender definitely made the thirty-second edition of America’s most prestigious Mr. Leather contest a historic affair.





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