Not too long ago, I got back from spending a month in San Francisco. While I was there, I spoke at two leather conferences – the Leather Leadership Conference and International Ms. Leather. Both were stellar events, as one might expect of kinky conferences held in the bellybutton of kink itself. I may attempt a conference review of each one at some point, or I may settle for referencing individual workshops when their content becomes relevant to the things I’m writing about. But right now, I’m feeling like I should post about why it is that I decided not to run for the International Ms. Leather title – before the topic gets so out of date I’d feel silly doing so.
A few weeks back, I got an e-mail from a former IMsL titleholder of my acquaintance, who invited me to run. Apparently the contest is interested in drawing folks from Canada to participate, which I think is downright lovely, and certainly in keeping with the letter I in IMsL. So because I’m a geeky sort, I started doing some research. After all, if I’m going to wear someone else’s logo across my chest or back, and work my ass off for the privilege to boot, I’d better damn well be sure I want it there.
My first step was to take a look at the contest details and application form.
The stated mission of the contest is as follows. (I keep trying to link to the document, but it keeps crashing my browser, so if you’re interested you can go find the full text at www.imsl.org.)
Each year, during the International Ms Leather weekend, a contestant is chosen to represent the women’s leather community both locally and internationally on behalf of the International Ms Leather Contest. She will be chosen for her expression, dedication and personality. She will act as a mentor, a role model and a spokesperson during her title year. The titleholder must be intelligent and articulate, capable of communication and outreach both to leather and non-leather communities worldwide.
So far, so good. It sounds a little generic, but nothing offensive.
Next up, the judging criteria. On a total of 100 points, 40 are given for a personal interview with the judging panel. “Questions may include (but are not limited to) community contributions, personal history, leather history and current events.” A two-minute prepared speech on the topic of your choice gets you another 20 points, and your “heart and soul” – i.e. your general demonstration of acceptable social and networking skills over the contest weekend – nails you 10 more. Again, so far, so good.
Then we get to the bits where I start to get uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in the sense that I think there’s anything morally wrong with the whole concept, but uncomfortable in that I’m not so much down with the idea of actually being evaluated on certain things. I can see myself giving an interview and a speech and being a generally nice and friendly person for the space of a weekend, and if someone wants to watch me do those things and give me points for ‘em, well, okay. These things feel like criteria that are relevant to a person’s leadership, mentorship and spokesperson abilities.
But I feel like the next two criteria don’t really fit. Those criteria are the following:
Fantasy (20 points)
To be performed at the International Ms Leather 2008 Contest. The fantasy performance must not exceed 4 minutes. The fantasy performance will be rehearsed and heavily coached by our Entertainment Producer to ensure the highest possible production value for the contest overall. Contestants will receive more specific instructions directly from the Entertainment Producer.
Hotwear and Pop Question (10 points)
The contestants will be asked a Pop Question on stage during the International Ms Leather 2008 contest and will have the opportunity to show the audience and judges the outfit that makes them feel sexiest!
I can carry off a decent performance on the rare occasion I’m called upon to do something in front of a crowd other than educate, but I’m not a fantastically talented entertainer. And I can wear a sexy outfit as readily as the next person and feel damn good in it. But I don’t enjoy the idea of being judged for either of those things. How the heck does anyone judge hotness, anyway? Any judge will necessarily be biased in favour of what turns their personal crank, and if they’re not, then how else do they decide? Fashion is notoriously fickle, leatherdykes are notoriously diverse-looking, and I can’t fathom how you’d bring all that together and make any kind of truly fair decision.
Beyond that, though, the idea that a person’s eligibility for international community leadership and activism would be in any way determined by their ability to perform some sort of hot dance routine or slink around on stage in a buttery leather dress or strut in assless chaps… I dunno. How do those things go together? The world out there that isn’t so friendly to leatherfolk is surely not going to give kinky people better protection under the law because they’ve been entranced by the gleam of a leather-clad thigh. “Wow, that gal looks good in that bar vest. Maybe we should re-think taking Bob and Jane’s kids away because they’ve got a box of floggers in their closet.” Can you picture it? Me either.
I feel like if the contest is aimed at judging who will make a good community spokesperson, those last two criteria aren’t the relevant ones to be looking at. But if they are important to the organizers, then the contest’s mission should probably change to reflect the reasons for that – and there’s really nothing wrong with that. Have a beauty contest! There are tons of hot leatherdykes out there worth parading across a stage, and I’d be the first to hoot and holler and cast a ballot for my favourite. After all, leather bar titles have their roots in the gay equivalent of beauty contests, and a dyke beauty pageant is about as far away from the retchingly gross mainstream Miss America concept as I can imagine, such that it retains very little power to offend me. To borrow a term from my esteemed colleague Jacqueline St-Urbain, there’s nothing wrong with some cheerful lechery. And really, what dyke wouldn’t be doing her catwalk with a healthy dose of irony, wearing leather or no?
I looked at all this, and tried to balance the pros and cons. Sure, I’m not so crazy about the hotness criteria or the performance, but an IMsL title comes with a travel fund that takes the winner to the leather events of their choice for the year of their title – talk about a boost to the speaking career. And I could use the international visibility to move my own activist agenda forward – which of course meant I needed to have an agenda. Yet one more question to consider.
I took my second step, which was to book a phone date with the former titleholder who had solicited my participation in the first place. It was a helpful conversation in that she certainly painted a solid picture of the pros and cons of being on the title circuit. My questions going in were:
- What community would I be representing if I hold this title?
- How, exactly, would a Canadian titleholder fit into a massively American title circuit?
- How would this feed my activist work, and what would my purpose be? Generic doesn’t cut it – what would I actually be signing on to accomplish?
On the pro side, she mentioned a few things:
- a title vest can be an excellent conversation-starter for grassroots-level activism;
- you can use your visibility to raise funds for charities that are important to you;
- there’s great freedom in the use of the travel fund, so if you make the ethical choice to attend events only when your presence can make some sort of tangible difference, its use can be very effective;
- the titleholder herself somewhat defines the mission of the title for a given year and defines the community she represents, so you could bring Canadian concerns to the table; and
- after a year of titleholding, the network of contacts you can develop is considerable, and can help you move forward with activist goals once you’ve left the spotlight as well.
On the con side, she had a few others:
- holding a title can really show you the classism that comes with certain elements of the leather community;
- it’s entirely possible to hold a title and do not a whit of good with it; many titleholders are well-intentioned but simply have no idea what to do with all the attention they get, and by the time the year is done, they’ve probably figured out what to do, but by then it’s over, so it’s not the most effective structure for reaching activist goals;
- the amount of work and travel you might do during a title year can be really draining; and
- some women’s communities look at titles with some suspicion because their feminist views about beauty pageants, although there are many places where titleholders are welcome regardless.
All in all, that felt like a pretty balanced picture. The cons were mainly things I thought I could work around - I’m not shy about challenging power inequities; I’m already used to a high pace of travel; if I were to run at all, I would come into a title with an agenda already in place about what to do with my year, and I’d dive right into it; and… hm. That pesky beauty pageant thing. Yeah.
She also told me that a lot of leatherdykes are “intellectuophiles” (what a great word), and told me, “Use the brainy thing! Use your power for good!” At first that felt flattering, but it left a funny taste in my mouth, and it took me a little while to figure out why. It wasn’t anything to do with her – she’s all kinds of great. No, it was the idea, which she accurately if inadvertently conveyed, that some element of my effectiveness as an activist while holding a title would have to do with people’s perception of me as some sort of niche-market sexy. In other words, I’d be hooking people with my leather-clad, bespectacled charms and from there transposing their attention to my cause of choice… and this would be a perfectly valid way of proceeding in the titleholding mentality.
Now, I don’t have control over whether people percieve me as attractive or not, but I do have control over whether or not I choose to deliberately use that potential as an activist strategy… and I don’t like the idea of choosing that strategy, not one bit. I don’t really want to work my sex appeal, such as it is, as an educational approach. I want to write and speak, and while I don’t want to hide my face or wear burlap sacks, I’d really rather people be drawn primarily to what I’m saying rather than to what I’m wearing or my hip-to-waist ratio or the shape of my nose or what have you.
Not only that, but the idea of bringing Canadian concerns to an American circuit that sees itself as international… that sounds suspiciously like me doing the work for a cause I’m not entirely sure I stand behind, and which, if it were truly to live up to its name, should be doing that work before I get there. I understand that reaching out for Canadian contestants is part of that work, and I totally applaud them for doing so; their organizing team is also actively attempting to cross-promote with leatherwomen’s events outside the US, another excellent endeavour.
But I’m not sure I want to spend a year’s worth of my activist energy on flying the maple leaf loud and proud to show the American circuit that we’re just as leathery as they are. I don’t feel any particular urgency about proving that. I love visiting the States, I have tons of wonderful friends there, and I admire the work they’ve done, their sense of history, their long-established activist groups and more. But I’d rather invest my energy in grassroots community-building within the Canadian scene, such as through An Unholy Harvest – nurturing Canadian presenters, creating opportunities for inter-provincial cross-pollination, and so forth – than in showing the States how cool and kinky Canada is. And I’m not convinced that holding an Americentric title would move me forward on that count.
So I moved on to my third step, which was to arrange a few meetings – some in person, some by phone - with leatherfolk I thought might give me some valuable perspective. I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend a few veteran voices in the kink community, so I was pretty lucky in having access to some highly informed points of view. I am, however, loath to name-drop, so suffice it to say these folks know whereof they speak. Here are a few of their comments.
First of all, everyone agreed on this first point, and having now attended, I can say that I do too:
“IMsL is an excellent event, with fabulous socializing and wonderful workshops and parties, especially since the takeover by the new owners (Glenda and Levi).”
But they also said a few things that confirmed some of my concerns:
“By not running for a title, you’re always only accountable for your own views.”
“You can do other work that’s high-profile but produces more distinctly tangible results.”
“I haven’t figured out what activist good titleholders do. They originate with bar titles, which were created to promote bars. A title can add legitimacy to your work, but that concept is fairly new.”
“Some titleholders have done great work, but they would have anyway.”
“When you hold a title, you wind up spending all your time preaching to the choir.”
I think the one that really got me from that list of cautions was that last one. It really stopped me in my tracks, and made me start to think about what my personal purpose is as an activist. I realized that while I enjoy talking about my passions with people who are already on board with the basics and want to take things a few levels up, and that certainly feeds my soul and inspires my mind, I’m not entirely convinced that’s truly an activist project. I feel most like an activist when I’m challenging people who aren’t already queer, kinky or poly to think differently about alternative forms of sexual and gender expression, and providing them with tailored information to help them start where they are and move forward towards understanding in places where they used to feel discomfort. That’s the work, and while it’s work I enjoy doing, it’s definitely work. The rest is the fun stuff. And holding a title from a group that would want to spend a year putting me in the spotlight on leather stages would end up giving me more of the fun stuff (potentially) while making it more difficult to do the work. How could I reconcile that with any pretensions to greater heights of activism?
Interestingly, at the IMsL closing keynote brunch, the fabulous Laura Antoniou brought up a number of the same points that the veterans mentioned in our conversations - yep, right there on stage at IMsL, she challenged the entire premise of IMsL itself. What a ballsy chick. But she also had some excellent suggestions. She suggested that perhaps, rather than making the event about electing a new titleholder each year, that it should be focused on recognizing and rewarding the accomplishments of an existing activist annually. Damn, but she’s smart. She also said she takes no issue with the event itself because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting a bunch of hot people together for a weekend to take great workshops and have great sex. (Do I hear a round of applause?)
On a somewhat different note, she exhorted people in the leather community to become better informed about the political issues that directly affect us at a local level – to read the news, to vote in school board elections, to take part in municipal politics, to do community work at home. Really, she was inviting people to become informed, effective grassroots activists rather than focusing their energies on the glamour of an international circuit.
So there it is. Add it all together, balance the scales, and the answer for me was no. The IMsL title is not for me. I remain very flattered that they asked, and that the owners reiterated their encouragement at the end of this year’s contest, saying I should run in 2009. But I just can’t line up the title with the things I want to accomplish, so I think it’s best that I leave the work of titleholding to those who are better suited to it. Perhaps at some point it’ll be a hottie Canadian gal. When she wins, I’ll be the first to pat her on the ass. I mean back.
Now, if the IMsL folks decide to reinvent the title with Laura’s suggested value system in mind, I might end up being a better fit, in which case I’ll probably go through the whole existential questioning process again.
In the meantime, I’ll just show up in San Francisco next March, wear some leather, teach a class, play with a hottie or two, and take in some yummy workshops. Hey, if Laura Antoniou, the IMsL producers (the most excellent Glenda Rider and Levi Halberstadt), the veterans and I can all be in agreement on one thing, it’s that enjoying a weekend among leatherwomen and our appreciators makes for some damn good dirty fun!