judging leather

I’ve been asked to judge a number of leather contests in my time. This always strikes me as a bit amusing, because I’ve never competed in one and I’ve made no secret of the fact that I generally find them somewhat… less than inspiring. They are low on my priority list of things I’d like to see the leather community doing with its energy. But apparently, the lovely folks out there who run these things (and they are lovely) tend to like bringing in judges who are opinionated (cuz then we are likely to, y’know, judge!), and I am certainly that. Much as I’d like to believe I’ve been hauled in for these gigs because of my superior intellect, though, I suspect the frequency of the requests I’ve had might also be related to the fact that I’m female and Canadian, which helps me fill some demographic quotas on judging panels. Whatever. If you want to fly me to your town so that I can terrorize your contest hopefuls as a token Canadian dyke, I’m in. I can think of worse things to do with a weekend.

With that in mind, here is a message from me, potential and actual leather contest judge, to you, potential and actual contestants.

You need to know, going in, that a lot of people in the world think leather title contests are kinda silly. And I’m not just talking about vanilla folks who don’t “get it.” I’m talking about your very own fellow perverts. I am, in many respects, one of those people. In the decade or more of activism and teaching work I’ve done in leather/BDSM/fetish/kink communities, I have to say, it is extremely rare outside title contest circuits themselves that I’ve encountered anyone who understands what the point of contests is, and I’m not even sure I understand it myself. You prance on stage in sexy black clothes and get crowned leader for a year; during that year you bop around to several dozen events in which other people are doing pretty much the same thing you just did; maybe you help pick one of the next leaders-for-a-year; and then it’s all over. What did you accomplish? I’m still not clear on that part. Most titles don’t require you to accomplish anything at all, other than show up places wearing a vest. I fail to see how this is anything other than an exercise in vanity, and many others feel the same way, whether they say so out loud or not.

This is not to say that titleholders don’t accomplish things. Some of them do. Those rare and valuable creatures are basically smart, interesting, driven activists who decide that the fame and visibility afforded them by a title will get them access to new opportunities and contacts who can help them to do the activist work they’re already doing. And they’re right. The catch is, they were already doing cool shit before they ever entered a leather contest, which is why they won. But a lot of people who are already doing cool activism are too damn busy doing cool activism to dress up in chaps and shimmy around on stage, let alone commit to poncing about the continent to tons of places where other people are doing the same thing. This is the issue with leather titles: because of the time and travel commitments, a lot of awesome activists are actively discouraged from entering the contests in the first place. As a result, the vast majority of contestants in the vast majority of contests just aren’t that interesting. They don’t do much. They don’t know much. They don’t have much of substance to say. So we end up with contests that, much of the time, elect the best of the mediocre to represent the community, rather than the best of the best, because the best of the best are working their damn tails off outside the spotlight.

With that rather cynical viewpoint in mind, here is some concrete advice for the prospective titleholder.

First, let’s make a distinction. Some titles are beauty-pageant titles. They are popularity contests for perverts. There is nothing wrong with this. It is a fantastic form of entertainment, if you’re into that sort of thing, and as a pervert, frankly, I am. I like watching hotties shake their booties on stage in the minimal wear category.

If you want to be in a beauty pageant, do exactly that. Don’t pretend to have an agenda. Make it clear that you’re there to have fun, be sexy and encourage others to do the same. There is not a damn thing wrong with this; we are here for sex, after all. And if you’re not—if you are one of those extremely puzzling individuals who just wants to wax your buttcrack, oil your pecs and raise money for children’s charities—go away, please. Seriously. That shit is creepy. Put on a Santa hat and ring a bell instead, and wear your leather when you’re horny, and have some damn boundaries.

Some titles are activist titles. They are intended, to greater and lesser degrees, to elect representatives for the local/regional/national/international leather community. It is debatable whether this is a successful venture—see my earlier framing of this issue. But even if the title circuit is a less-than-ideal manner of accomplishing this end, it is sometimes sincere in its desire to do so.

If you want to be an activist, do that. Have some meaningful politics—don’t just recycle ideas about how the community needs to come together and stop infighting. Even if that is your message—and I would encourage you to think long and hard about that message before you go with it, as it’s tired and trite and not very useful—you should be able to defend it solidly. Who needs to come together? Why and for what concrete purpose? How, precisely, will you encourage that to happen, and why are you the right person for that job? On the other hand, if you have a more original platform—and I hope you do—then what is it? Be precise, know what your motivation is, tell me why the thing you want to accomplish as a titleholder is important, tell me what your strengths are, and tell me how you’ll compensate for your weaknesses. Have some historical knowledge about your local community, your regional community, and (if you’re competing in a big contest) the place of both of those on the national and international scene. Do some reading. Have something thoughtful to say about men, about women, about trans people (including those who identify as men or as women), about race, about age, about dis/ability, about straight people, about queers (including, but not limited to, gay people). Have at least some perspective about the fact that the vast majority of kinky freaks out there can’t afford your outfit, your plane ticket, your hotel and possibly even your last meal, and tell me why you should be representing that majority.

Some titles try to mix these two purposes together: beauty pageantry and activism. I find these exceedingly bizarre, but they are frightfully common. If you’re on a stage for such a contest, then while you’re being sexy, pour it on. Show me that you’re really into this shit. Make me believe you were born in your leather, or that you’ve earned it with blood, sweat and tears, or at the very least (and it really is the least important part, not the most important one) that you know how to find a good stylist and a decent tailor. Be proud of your bare skin too—yes, that includes if you carry forty extra pounds around your middle, or you’re five foot nothing, or you’ve got a hump from your HIV drugs. Believe you are sexy, and be sexy, because you are, and for fuck’s sake don’t be ashamed of it. Show me that you are the perviest perv who ever perved, because we are not clean-cut soft-spoken inoffensive people who just happen to like the smell of leather—we are the sexual margins. We do shit in bed and in public that most of the world only does in their wank fantasies. Embody it. Own it. If you are going to represent me, I want to know that you are a perv through-and-through, because if you’re not, frankly I don’t trust you to represent anything beyond your own damn self, and you shouldn’t be in a leather contest.

And then, once you’re done showing me that you can have dirty sexy fun with the best of us, show me that you can be serious too. Show me that you have a brain behind that sharp-looking military fade, that you care enough to learn some shit before you get on the stage, that you have opinions you’re capable of stating clearly and defending firmly, that you can get a crowd of hundreds to listen to you and that you can get them to think, not just get them to clap.

And if you want to really impress me? Do both of those things at once. I want to know you can hold six hundred people’s attention, while nearly naked, with the power of your words, not the size of your package. Make me believe that you, in your hairy-chested, heavy-booted glory, are actually going to go out there and accomplish something that will change the world, even if it is a small step (it is always a small step), even if it is something that most of the world will think is insignificant or shameful. I want to know that you can write a speech while wearing a collar or getting your dick sucked, and that your speech can still make me cry; I want to know that you can get on a stage in nothing but fuck-me pumps, a G-string and nipple tape and whatever you do next will still have me talking about what you said, not what you wore. This is a very real challenge, people.

In short: you wanna win a leather contest where I’m the judge? Don’t just make me applaud. Make me admire you.


UPDATE Jan. 15, 2012:

As of this weekend, I’m now allowed to officially say that I’ve been invited to be a judge for International Mr. Leather of this year, which is by most accounts the world’s biggest and most prestigious leather contest. I received the invitation several months ago, and wrote this post in full awareness that it might cause some stir both before and after the judges were announced.

I know that some people are concerned that a person who doesn’t believe in the title circuit is poorly placed to be a judge within that very system. They may well be right. I enjoy all the fun stuff that happens on a big leather contest weekend, but I don’t buy into the pomp and circumstance and the celebrity culture of the whole thing, even when I’m placed at the heart of it, and as I’ve expressed in detail above, I don’t believe it’s the best way to create or sustain leadership within the leather world.

My lack of buy-in to the system is nothing new. I first blogged about it several years ago, in direct response to an invitation to compete in International Ms. Leather—an invitation which I turned down. Following that, the inimitable Glenda Rider, IMsL’s owner and producer, invited me to judge the event, and I chewed on that for a bit, and asked a bunch of questions, and put my doubts on the table quite frankly. Glenda’s response was, “As a judge, you are not being asked to put aside your prejudices and your opinions. Your opinions are exactly why I’ve invited you. You are here TO JUDGE.” It made a lot of sense to me at the time, and still does now.

I’m not shy to share my critiques of the leather community and its various institutions. I’ve blogged them, I’ve expressed them in keynote addresses, and I imbue all the workshops I teach with a healthy dose of them. (And I am not the only one doing this by any stretch. The illustrious Laura Antoniou, in her trademark hilarious and whip-smart style, roasted the entire title system in her IMsL keynote address a few years back, and went on to judge IML herself last years. She also inspired Mollena, IMsL 2010, to run with her critiques in mind. I tip my hat to her.) But I don’t make my critiques from a place of dismissal or hatred. I make them precisely because I have an investment in the leather community, both personal and political, and I would really like to see it shift in directions that I think would be healthier and more productive. I’m also a firm believer in being the change you want to see in the world, so with that in mind I do my own organizing work—the annual Canadian leatherdyke event An Unholy Harvest, which I co-organize with Jacqueline St-Urbain, and a Toronto-based book club called the Leather Bindings Society—in a way that doesn’t place importance on leather celebrity or titleholding.

I don’t seek out contest judging gigs and never have; they come to me. But I make a solid judge precisely because I have concrete opinions about where I’d like to see the community go. If there is an opportunity for me to bring my values and visions into a system that I see as flawed, and to influence its next leaders who may find themselves in a position to make changes in that system, then I feel I should take that opportunity. If my participation as an IML judge means that the contestants who take some time to research their judges end up realizing (for those who didn’t already) that in order to be a strong IML candidate they might want to know a few basic things about anti-oppression politics, that they might want to do some leather history reading, that they might want to have some kind of platform that’s intelligent and original and not a weak rehash of the same-old same-old… well, then I’m acting exactly in accordance with my politics. For all that I don’t think the title system is the best way to get good leather leaders, at the very least, if you put me in the judge’s seat, there’s some chance that a guy with some brains and some good politics will end up on the podium for the next 12 months. And regardless of the fact that I don’t think the title circuit is a good idea, thousands of other people do, and the holders of the biggest titles on the continent do get listened to, and are given opportunities to wield a lot of influence and do a lot of good work. If I have any say in the matter, which I will, then the guy who wins this year’s title will be worth listening to, will wield his influence wisely and judiciously, and will do good work.

Someone recently asked me why, if I don’t believe in the title circuit, I don’t just step down as a judge and let someone take my place who does believe in it. For the reasons I outline here, I don’t have any inclination to do that, but if the organizers of IML have reason to think I’m the wrong pick for the job, I will of course bow out and let someone they deem more suitable take my place. But I don’t expect that to happen, since they read this post too, weeks before they announced my name, and showed no hesitation in keeping me on the roster.

I’d like to clarify one last thing before finishing. I have plenty of criticism of the title system, but it does not follow that I think poorly of the individuals who operate within it. I really, truly wish the community were structured in a different way, and placed its focus on other matters, but there are plenty of fine people organizing, competing in and attending leather contests. Some people have doubtless been offended by this post regardless, but I do hope they can at least see that I intend no personal slight to anyone here—my critique is of systems, both the title event system proper and the value system that underpins it, but it is not in any way a personal attack on any individuals. I am standing within a community I love and saying out loud that I’d like it to change for the better. I’d like to see more political awareness and less politicking. More embracing of difference and less focus on money, fame and status. More sex and less shame (read: fewer attempts at self-redemption as perverts via fundraising for unrelated charities, a pet peeve Guy Baldwin articulated in brutally honest terms at last year’s Leather Leadership Conference). More knowledge of (and concrete, peer-reviewed scholarship on) leather history and less rosy idolizing of the mythological past. More awareness of privilege and less reiterating of tired old ineffective messages. I’m doing my bit as best I can, and I will use whatever influence I’ve got to ask others to do the same.

14 thoughts on “judging leather

  1. A quick addendum: I realize that this post doesn’t address the skills-based, or partially skills-based, contests that are bootblacking contests. Those are a bit of a different animal, and I haven’t really done them justice here. Some of what I’ve written here still applies, but some doesn’t, because there’s a concrete skill involved and usually there’s no fantasy performance or “pecs and personality” competition or what have you, making the competition a good deal less likely to be focused on the beauty-pageant aspect of things even if it’s not an activist title per se. Also, often the mission of a bootblack titleholder is to educate community members about bootblacking and/or to promote the art within the leather world, which makes it also a really functional kind of title.

    The whole concept is still a difficult thing to grasp for some people outside the title circuit – I’ll never forget the time I was being interviewed by a kinky dyke in Europe who was curious about the contest circuit and particularly the bootblacking titles, and she looked at me like I had two heads when I tried to explain the whole thing. She just didn’t get why the competition element was necessary – couldn’t people just share their skills and educate without that? And of course, the answer is yes, and we see that all the time. So some of my challenges still remain when it comes to bootblacking in the context of a title circuit. But bootblacking deserves its own post, and that’ll have to wait for another day. 🙂

    1. I had the honor of judging the Bootblack competition last year at GLLA and I was one of the “non-Bootblack Judges”, didn’t have a clue about the necessary skills etc one needs, I was looking more for how they work with the person, how they made me feel, what knowedge they could impart on me, and I have even more respect for our Bootblack community, the skills they have both physically in working with our Leathers, and mental skills to know what to do was humbling to me. I am looking forward to your article on our Bootblacks. Oh, and don’t forget, tip your Bootblacks well please, because our Leathers deserve the best and our Bootblacks deserve our best.

  2. I have found personally that in the wrong hands, that Leather/SM sash contests can be downright destructive to our community.

  3. Great writing! Your keynote address at Leather Leadership Conference XIV in Detroit was fantastic and I think you offer informed and thought provoking ideas. Congratulations of being selected to judge IML 2012.

  4. You are a great writer and I really enjoyed reading what you have to say! I adore bright people and you are very intelligent. I am a regional titleholder, did compete at Imsl, a member of a backpatch club (another entire culture all its own) and am currently a mid century transman nonop hormones only. I agree there is much work that needs to done in our community. My passsions are with HIV work and I have proudly done work in outreach and education. If you are ever in Columbus, Ohio I would love to have a beverage of your choice and just chat with you! I’m attending IML 2012 and I think you will be an excellent judge because of what you believe in!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I have no plans to be in Ohio anytime soon, but by all means come say hello if you see me at IML. It’s always nice to make new friends. 🙂

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