Whips n’ chains, community and sex: Covering International Mr. Leather 2013

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Contestants showcase a variety of talents at beginning of the International Mr. Leather Pecs & Personality contest, setting the tone for that night’s competition.

I got into a tiff with a friend during the week prior to the 35th Annual International Mr. Leather Weekend (IML). The festival could be summarized as a celebration of leather culture, sexual fetishes and communal brotherhood among mostly gay and bisexual men.

The festival also hosts a contest, where men who won regional feeder competitions throughout the world vie for the title of International Mr. Leather. Fifty-one contestants were assessed in categories like public service, knowledge of the leather community’s history, and yes, physical appearance and charm. Ultimately, it was Andy Cross from San Francisco who won the title.

My disagreement was over the way I would write about IML while covering the event for Isthmus – a weekly newspaper in Madison, Wisc.

I have seen similar debates over the ways writers depict gay pride celebrations. Readers complain on websites because the spectacle of scantily dressed go-go boys and cross dressing drag queens often receives more attention than the ordinary, nuclear families of same-sex couples who have children. In like manner, broadcast and print journalism may latch on to the tropes of leather culture: whips and chains, collars and masks.

My friend worried, legitimately, if I focused on these details, my writing about IML could become sensationalist. The dilemma I faced was how to accurately portray these sexual tropes, while also placing them in a meaningful context.

To me, the problem is not leather communities’ associations with sex. IML was proudly saturated with it. The problem is social propriety. Sex can be frivolous, sure. However, as an estimated 18,000-20,000 people gathered in Chicago for six days to celebrate leather and kink, I became increasingly aware how important raunchy sex was for attendees. For many, it was a part of their identity. I was left wondering, what is so bad about a festival that celebrates both?

Read my article here.

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