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Titleholder Crap

In thinking about the inadequacies of the whole leather title system I often remember the phrase “this is no way to run a railroad!”  What we are doing with our leather title contests is much the same thing.  It is no way to run what is supposed to be a fun and harmless event nor is it any way to choose leaders or representatives to work within our community to help it grow and move forward.

Leather title contests, be they the small, local efforts or the massive “international” contests have increasingly become something which they are fundamentally unsuited to be.  We are asking too much of them, giving them too little support for what we ask, and granting them too much importance in our community for what they produce.  This applies to the individual leather titleholders as well.

Leather title contests are supposed to be entertaining.  They are supposed to be fun events that no one takes too seriously.  They are supposed to be all about the beefcake up on stage and nothing more.  They started out that way.  It was only the effects of the Plague that changed them.  As the most visible individuals in the leather community at the time, leather titleholders were in a unique position to rally the community to do something about the Plague.

In those early days, and by this I am speaking of the very early 80’s, the leather titleholders were not the best suited for the job.  They did not have the social skills for it.  They did not have the political awareness for it.  They did not have the consensus building abilities to do the job as well as it needed to be done.  However, they were the most visible ones in our community who stepped forward to meet the need and to do the job.  That is what community activism is all about.  It is just this sort of communitarian spirit which holds a community together and moves it forward.  Their actions were just what was needed at the time because there were too few others there to do the job better.  Now there are.

Over the past ten years or so there has been a proliferation of activist and political groups within the leather/ SM/ fetish community.  Starting with the National Leather Association back in the late 80’s and moving forward with such efforts as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Leather Leadership Coalition, and the hundreds of local groups such as the Portland Leather Association, Club X San Diego, Black Rose, GMSMA, and APEX, our community is finally developing its political strengths.  Yet the whole leather titleholder system continues as if it were still the only force within the leather/ SM/ fetish community to move it forward.

While I have no problem with individual activism and am encouraged by the community awareness that some titleholders show, I think the whole leather title contest system has become overwrought.  The contests and the contestants are hardly representative of what today's leather community is.  This is nothing new actually, as they never were representative of what the leather/ SM/ fetish community ever was in the first place.  They were simply expressions of leather sex fantasies put up on stage for the rest of us to admire and drool over.  That and buy more beer in the bars where they are held.  There is nothing wrong with that.  If is fun, when done right, and we don't have enough fun in our lives to start with.

Yet too many folks involved with such contests seem to think that those contests must have some sort of activist and political agenda to them in order for them to be “legitimate.”  That their simply being entertaining and fun is not enough to justify their existence.  So they wrap these contests up in the banner of community service, community awareness and community representation.  This is not so bad a thing in and of itself but the real problem comes when both the organizers of the contests and the contestants themselves then go on to demand pride of place within our community simply because they claim to be such a community event and community representatives.  I deeply disagree with self-created claims of community legitimacy being used to demand deference and power from the community.

It is one thing to do good social works at a contest venue or to use the leather title spokesperson role as a bully pulpit to rally the community.  Our community needs its cheerleaders like every other community does.  It is entirely something else though to think that such contest events are in any way “true” community events or that the pageant winners they produce are in any “true” community leaders who are therefore empowered to speak for the rest of the leather/ SM/ fetish community.  Yet, this is exactly what too many contest producers and leather titleholders seem to firmly believe.  And this is exactly the nature of the problem we face in the leather/ SM/ fetish community with the leather title contest system.

Let me make clear that I am not opposed to the contests themselves nor am I against the idea of men and women competing in them to determine who is the “best” representative of the leather ideals in vogue at that particular moment.  Far from it.  Done right, I think such events can be wonderful things.  I myself have had a blast going to some such events.  This year, for the first time in almost ten years, I am going to be in Chicago over Memorial Day Weekend to attend the International Mr. Leather Contest.  I have been to two of these events before and had a fantastic time at each.  I had such a great time because I largely ignored both the contest and the contestants concentrating instead on the gathering of leathermen there.  Such numbers!  So sexy!  So horny!  It was a blast and I made the most of it.

In this aspect, such an event does exactly what it is supposed to do.  It is a fun time to be had by all.  That is why I am going to IML this year even though I am pretty much turned off by the hubris of the whole contest system itself.  I am not alone in this.  Most of the men who turn up for IML are far more concerned by the action going on in the lobby of the site hotel than they are by what takes place up on stage.  In fact, a lot of guys view the contest itself as being a distraction but a “necessary evil” to justify all those other guys coming into town to party.

This is exactly what leather title contests should be.  Or at least what they should be allowed to return to being.  Fun events where a good time can be had by all.  Community aware events, yes, but not events which claim to be truly representative of the community at large.  Nor events where the pageant's winner can make any such claim either.

Leather title contests are inherently unrepresentative of the community.  That is their whole reason for coming in existence in the first place.  The whole point of such contests is selecting the one individual who best represents the fantasy vision of what a leather person is supposed to be.  That is hardly a representation of what the majority of leatherfolk actually are.

Also, such events involve the community only as spectators - as a crowd that has almost no voice in the selection of the pageant winner.  This is hardly the way to select a representative of the whole community.  Certainly not one where the titleholder has any real mandate to be a community leader nor represent anything more than the host bar or the name of the title contest itself.  It is interesting to note that the contests which actually involve more of the community in choosing their winners, that is, by having the crowd roar its approval for each contestant and then “measuring” the results, are universally derided by the “real” pageants such as IML, Drummer and IMsL.  Yet it is those very contests that use the device of “choice by acclamation” which therefore produce titleholders that are more “representative” of the community from which they come because they actually involve the community in choosing the titleholders.

I had this vividly pointed out to me recently by a national titleholder while we were discussing that actions of another individual we both knew.  At the Leather Leadership Conference in San Francisco back in 1999 there was a moment during one of the common sessions where the organizers asked all the leather titleholders in the audience to rise and be recognized.  What this had to do with activism and political organization work within the leather community is beyond me to this day.  Yet the request was made and all the titleholders in the audience rose up and were recognized, this mutual friend among them.  It turns out that he had “won” an “international” leather title.  It was Mister International Best Butt, or something like it, and was held at the Folsom Street Festival the previous year.  He “won” this title by crowd acclamation and he did indeed have a cute butt.  Thus he was entitled to use that title as the one and only Mister International Best Butt for that year.  This is a distinction that only one person in the whole universe gets to claim.  During my discussion with this other international titleholder about our mutual acquaintance, he was vehement that the Mr. International Best Butt had absolutely no right to stand up alongside all the other leather titleholders.  That simply because he had been awarded that title by the leather community itself and that it was a title wholly without “deeper” aspirations somehow made it less “real” than the other titles.  Titles such as what he had won.

It was interesting how outraged he was at this “presumption” on the part of the Mr. Int’l Best Butt.  Yet, he really didn't have any grounds for it.  The claims to a greater degree of legitimacy on the part of a contest like IML, IMsL (International Ms. Leather) or even one of the smaller ones like the Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather contest or a Mr. San Diego Leather contest, are all self-generated.  Each of these contests defines itself as being a “real” event and therefore “legitimate.”  Yet they are no different from the Mr. Best Butt or from a “wet jock-strap of the week” contest.  The only thing is that the “real” leather title contests are a lot more elaborate and presumptuous.  They also cost a lot more to get in and you have a lot more boring speeches to wade through between the beefcake strutting around on stage.

Also, for all the claims of their being such community representatives, community leaders, and so community aware, leather titleholders are not selected on that basis.  In most contests in fact, leadership skills are among the last things ever considered in judging which individual will get the nod as that year's titleholder.  The judging categories have nothing to do with leadership, nothing to do with community building skills, nothing to do with political awareness, and nothing to do with proving a contestant's activist abilities.  Instead, contestants are judged on how good they look in their leathers, how cute their butts are in the leather jock-strap portion, if they can give a thirty second long speech without tripping over themselves in the process, how good their knowledge of leather contest trivia is during a short private interview, and perhaps how well they present a sexual fantasy skit to entertain the crowd.  In short, leather title contestants are judged on their beauty, their attractiveness and on their ability to entertain.  This is all well and good but what does it have to do with the rest of the leather/ SM/ fetish community?  How is selecting a good entertainer supposed to protect our rights from the right-wing reactionaries?  How is selecting someone who looks really good in chaps supposed to persuade the Federal Government not to automatically revoke security clearances of any federal employee discovered to be kinky?  How is selecting an individual who can give a good one minute speech about the need for tolerance and acceptance of diversity in our own community supposed to empower them to speak for all of us to our local police department on domestic violence issues in the SM community?

Perhaps if there were some legitimate criteria used in selecting these pageant winners then that might be a good step forward.  However, no such thing exists.  The criteria used to select leather title contest winners is subjective and arbitrary at best and too often capricious at worst.  There are no real standards.  Even among the judges themselves, things vary widely.  And why not?  What is being judged, beauty, charisma and the ability to entertain, are inherently a subjective thing.  They are strictly matters of personal opinion.  That is what they will always be and it is wrong to put so much weight on them.

I have seen all of this firsthand.  I have seen some very unique and gifted individuals be selected as leather titleholders who went on to do outstanding jobs.  These individuals were truly dedicated, had much to say about the world, and were already very effective community leaders before they ever put on a sash.  Such few individuals have turned out to be very much the exception to the rule.  The vast majority of leather titleholders are singularly ill equipped to the role they find themselves thrust into.  Most have absolutely no idea of the political climate the leather world functions in.  Some seem to believe that all they have to do as a titleholder is be more righteous than anyone else in the room and that this will somehow get things done.  Too many leather titleholders seem to think that they have to always be at “center stage” and the focus of attention in any effort which they lend their name to.  What is worse is when such titleholders take offense at not being granted the glory they think they are automatically due for just standing there and looking pretty.  We have all seen such flaming egotists and showboaters.  We have also seen the divisive effects such immature individuals have on our community.

This is not to say that all leather titleholders are arrogant sanctimonious twits nor that such behavior is solely restricted to sash queens.  However, leather titleholders are in a unique position in that they are not answerable to the community which they purport to serve.  The only person a titleholder really needs to please is the person who owns the contest they just won.  That is it.  Because the leather/ SM/ fetish community really has no say in which titleholders are selected, the titleholders themselves are free to do as they wish.  Or at least as free as the event owner allows them to be.

If one of the board members of GMSMA (Gay Men's SM Activists) began talking trash to the national media, began attacking other members of the leather community or doing something else equally as negative, then the membership of GMSMA (and therefore the leather community at large) could voice their disapproval by having him removed from their Board.  The same holds true with the National Leather Association, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, for Club X San Diego, APEX (Arizona Power Exchange)  and for any other membership group.  Yet the same is anything but true for leather titleholders.  Here in San Diego I have seen this firsthand.  One of our local pageant winners decided that she was not going to go to the national contest which the local event was part of.  She knew she was obligated to go and knew that the local Ms. San Diego Leather title was part of the IMsL system.  She also had read her contract and found a nice, fat loophole in it.  A loophole which allowed her to walk away from her responsibility and left the rest of the community powerless to do anything about it as she stayed home and pursued other interests.  I know other communities in other parts of the country have their own such horror stories.

While the actions of individual titleholders are beyond the voice of the community, so too are the title promoters and owners.  Inherently such contests can only happen when they are owned or run by a small group of individuals if not by just one individual.  This being so, the contests are even less accountable to the community than are the contestants because the contestants at least have to please their panel of judges and the judges are supposed to represent the community.  The owners however, are answerable only to themselves and their own desires.

So long as we don't encumber such events with anything more than a requirement that they be entertaining, then this is not a problem.  However, when the owner of a leather title event is more concerned with breaking even on his expenses some things change.  I have also seen this firsthand.

A couple of years ago I was up in Los Angeles to attend a “Barracks Night” put on by the Regiment of the Black & Tans, which is a gay men's group with a fetish for uniforms.  When my hair was just a buzzcut I fit right in an had a blast at such events.  At the time my hair was just about that short and I found myself in West Hollywood in the City of Angeles.  As it was early yet, I decided to head over to the Probe to drop in on the Mr. Probe Leather contest being held there that night.  The Probe, for those of you not in the know, is a major circuit party bar and not generally known for being part of the leather community.  Well, they do like to maintain that their bar is all about having fun and the leather look certainly is that, so they were having a leather contest to choose the best leather representative for their circuit bar.  Had they left it at that, then things would have been fine.  They didn't.

Instead, they made sure to let everyone in the audience know that the contest was to select the best leatherman to represent them at IML.  That this individual would epitomize the ideals of the leather community and would be the best leader and representative for the leather community.  Bullshit.  I knew a couple of the judges and one of them told me that the producer of the event had told him in no uncertain terms exactly what they were looking for that night and, more to the point, told him exactly what they weren't.  So, my friend used criteria to select a contestant at the Probe which was very much different from that which he would of used had the pageant been held at Cuff's, or the Faultline, or at any other “real” leather bar. This was what the owner of the contest title wanted and that is what he got.  In short, a pretty, young, buffed, guy in leather who looked better in a harness and pair of chaps than anyone else up on stage that night.  Whether he was actually into all the stuff he wore or had any experience in the scene was entirely secondary to how good he looked in the spotlight.  All of which is fine but it gave the lie to any claim of having a wider representation than just the owner's wishes or the fantasies of the circuit party boys in the audience.  The wants, desires, and needs of the rest of the leather community hardly mattered.

Over the years I have seen some contest producers and owners wear themselves out making sure their events take place and are well received.  They have gotten their satisfaction from the fun that the audience has in attending their events and they also enjoy being part of the show themselves.  I really appreciate the efforts of people like that.  They are willing to do hard work so that we all can have some fun.

I have also seen other contest owners run their events for the most base reasons possible and use their events as justification for more power within the leather community.  Some have turned and attacked others with their self-justified, self-created, and self-anointed positions of prominence.  I have seen this on both a national level and here in San Diego as well.  I find it absurd and repellent that someone could justify sitting in judgment of others simply due to their declaring themselves more important than others because they run a night's worth of entertainment once a year.  Where the problem lies with these individuals is that they also are not accountable to the rest of the community.  The title from which they draw their alleged community power is completely their own and not answerable to the community.  It is a sweet deal for them but one which has done a lot of damage to the rest of us.

What we should all do is lighten up.  A lot.  We should remove leather title contests and leather title contestants from any obligation to do anything of any political or social importance other than looking good up on stage.  And of having fun.  No more charades that their events are community services or that titleholders are community leaders.  Let us acknowledge them for what they are: nights of entertainment to select more entertainers.  There is nothing wrong with recognizing and accepting this.  It is what is already going on.

Letting leather pageants get back to their original role of being fun, entertaining and social events would be a great improvement for all of us.  It would make the events themselves much more enjoyable because we could do away with all the pretense and sanctimony.  It would lessen the chances of there being any divisiveness because everyone would recognize and accept the inherent limits and superfluous nature of these events.  I think the way the straight community handles its pageants is an excellent model for how we should ours.  They accept them as fantasy exercises, enjoy them for their entertainment value, and then get on with the rest of their lives.  We should do the same with our leather pageants.  They are fantasy exercises, done right they are very entertaining, and they do provide a nice distraction from our daily lives.  There is nothing wrong with that and we could all use more such distractions.  Life is too short not to.


Madoc Pope

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Until later then,


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This page was last updated on: 14 October 2006