Leather community debates trans exclusion at upcoming contest
by Zak Szymanski
"These are really good guys, and they are people of good standing in this community," is the first thing that longtime leather community member and activist Peter Fiske said of the local producers of the International LeatherSIR/Leatherboy competition. "I honestly do not believe that they think they are discriminating."
Resurrected where the San Francisco-born International Drummer contest left off, the LeatherSIR/Leatherboy will hold a regional feeder contest in San Francisco in July. The contest has a worldwide policy requiring its competitors to be "born male," thus excluding transgender men from competing.
Local leathermen Jay Hemphill and Michael Holeman are producing the city's LeatherSIR/Leatherboy, and both men also happen to be the leaders of the leather contingent for the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade, which takes place at the end of June. Fiske, who served as male leather marshal of last year's parade, said he may have to march in a different contingent this year, because the leather leadership is now associated with LeatherSIR/Leatherboy, "and I don't want it to appear that the leather community in San Francisco supports discrimination...the community should not have to be put in that position."
Recognizing that local contest producers don't have sole influence over the competition's policy, Fiske is asking that Hemphill and Holeman voluntarily step down as leaders of the leather Pride contingent. Otherwise, he is calling for the matter to be brought up at the Pride leather contingent meeting on January 28.
"The reason I am going public is not to shame anyone, but to draw attention to this policy. Not everybody knows that we are now welcoming a new discrimination to San Francisco," said Fiske, adding that all the male clubs he knows in the city simply require male identification and do not ask people to otherwise discuss or prove their birth gender. "Certainly, everyone is entitled to their privacy."
On Monday, January 16, Hemphill told the Bay Area Reporter that his comments would have to be limited to local concerns, as the transgender policy is an international rule and not something on which he could express his personal views.
"As far as the parade goes, it went so smoothly last year and I think everybody was happy," Hemphill said of his contingent leadership. The local controversy, he said, "is causing division in the leather community, which is not good. I'm surprised it's coming up now since it has always been the policy, even when it was Drummer before."
Although the same born male policy was adopted by the International Drummer contest upon its founding 29 years ago, community members say that such an exclusion is the exception, not the rule in San Francisco leather circles.
With the contest's reincarnation in San Francisco this year after a five-year absence, Fiske and others said it's time to take a stand, and a variety of community leaders are speaking out or refusing to be a part of any event that supports transgender discrimination. A letter drafted by Fiske and signed by local LGBT community members appears in this week's B.A.R. Additionally, some leather community members said they will refuse invitations to judge or help organize any competition that discriminates against transgenders.
"My official position is that I will not be involved in a contest that discriminates against my transgender brothers and sisters," said Jorge Vieto, a member of the S.F. Boys of Leather who said he was approached by local organizers of LeatherSIR and he respectfully declined to be involved. His own club welcomes transmen, he said, and "I just don't really see it as a problem. Discrimination based on sexual and gender identity is against our beliefs."
Some community members with a variety of viewpoints said they were not ready to make public statements on the record. One gay man who identified himself as the lover of a transman emphasized that it wasn't just transgenders who were affected by the policy. Others pointed out that such a policy is a rarity for the usually inclusive San Francisco leather community.
"The exclusionary policy of the LeatherSIR and boy contest is the exception. Nationwide, most of the men's leather clubs and events are inclusive at a policy level. Most of the rest have no specific policy, but are inclusive in practice. Only a very few have a written policy that excludes transmen, and in San Francisco, there are no men's leather clubs that discriminate," said Jordy Jones, a leather community member and scholar with a long history of involvement in human rights issues. "The men's community in general has been welcoming. This has mainly been accomplished quietly, man-to-man, without the painful struggles that unfortunately too often continue to mark the exclusion of transwomen from women's events and businesses. If people haven't heard about exclusionary policies in the men's leather community, that is because they are so rare as to be practically a non-issue. And that, of course, is how it should be; most clubs welcome all men."
Two themes consistently emerge during debates about trans inclusion in gender-segregated spaces. One is physicality, or the idea that a trans person will present with anatomy that is uncomfortably different from the majority of the crowd. The other is socialization, or the idea that a trans person has not been adequately indoctrinated into their gender's culture. Oftentimes, each of those themes influences or is confused with the other.
Socially, some familiar with male-space debates say that the highly visible and vocal emerging female-to-male and genderqueer populations in women's communities have made it difficult for well-blended FTMs to be out and taken seriously as men. It's a conflict that can be fueled by some events that claim to be women's events but which "welcome FTMs," furthering the false notion that transgender males are another version of women.
"FTM-inclusive women's space" is increasingly being challenged by its own community members â€“ by women who want their women's space back, as well as by some female-partnered FTMs who say that their invitation to women's events invalidates their male identities. Others have advocated that the terminology of such events at least be changed to accurately reflect the genders of who is welcomed. In the meantime the new prevalence of FTM-identified folks in women's circles has actually led some FTM men to redefine themselves, choosing the label of "transman" instead, or forgoing trans identities altogether to recognize that they live first as men.
But despite what seems confusing from the outside, many people from within all of these communities agree that it is a very different transgender male who lives in gay men's leather circles than one who primarily socializes with women. Thus, the idea of some kind of lesbian-tinged contest in gay male space is not actually very likely, they say.
"Gay transmen â€“ who sleep with and are accepted as men â€“ would be entirely out of place in my own gender-specific communities," Andy Julian, a self-described boi and a member of many online BDSM communities, told the B.A.R. "These are men first, and not usually trans-identified or visibly trans in the same way that plays out in women's spaces. Same goes for transmen who date women who are not lesbians. It's important for everyone's identity â€“ including mine â€“ that these distinctions be made."
Marcus Arana, a discrimination investigator with San Francisco's Human Rights Commission, said he finds many assumptions about transgenders to be based in sexism, regardless of whether those assumptions are coming from men or women.
"There is this funny idea that a
Like some national women's events that prohibit MTF transwomen from attending, the exclusion of transmen contestants in LeatherSIR/Leatherboy seems to revolve around the presence â€“ or absence â€“ of a penis.
"It is a sexual competition," explained Mike Zuhl, president of DCI Productions, which is based in Pittsburgh, which runs International LeatherSIR/Leatherboy. "The contest is about male sexuality. There's a jock strap competition, and a lot of skin showing along that line, and the people who compete should all be on the same fair footing."
Yet assumptions that transmen do not have penises are not necessarily based in fact, said Arana. While recent improvements in bottom surgeries have made the procedures more sought after and perhaps more common, even testosterone alone causes transmen to grow an organ referred to in medical texts as a "micropenis."
"I know lots of gay male FTMs who were never lesbians. Their queer identity is tied up in being men. So to suddenly tell this gay man he can't participate because his penis is two-inches long is a bit ironic," said Arana.
Creating an exclusion based upon penis size, he said, "may mean that a higher standard of masculinity is expected of FTMs than from other guys, which could be an area where the courts and case law could be explored."
Legally, the LeatherSIR/boy policy falls into a gray area, said Arana. On one hand, he said, the group is an international organization and a private club that can set its own rules, but on the other hand San Francisco's local nondiscrimination ordinance may mean that the Human Rights Commission may have jurisdiction to look into the group's contests when they are held in the city's public spaces.
A statement on the group's Web site says, "Contestants are judged in four categories: Interview; Formal Speech; Physique; and, a Leather Sex Fantasy based on the region's assigned theme for the year. The interview is a private meeting in the afternoon with the judges; the other categories take place on stage during the contest. The fantasy portions of the contest are a fun celebration of leather-sex and one of the key elements that sets LeatherSIR/Leatherboy contests apart for those styled after the International Mr. Leather and Mid-Atlantic Leather formats."
Winners of smaller competitions like those held in San Francisco go on to compete in regionals, and the international competition is held in Atlanta in October, though Zuhl said he would like to bring the big event back to San Francisco for its 30th anniversary.
Zuhl said that he brought up community concerns about the born male policy with his board at the last international competition in Atlanta, and the vote was unanimous â€“ 25-0 â€“ that the policy remain the same.
"I don't see it ever being brought up again," he said. "As far as we're concerned, it's a dead issue."
Zuhl â€“ emphasizing that his organization represents many regional communities which all have different standards â€“ said he doesn't quite understand what is behind the San Francisco controversy. He noted that some leather clubs across the country have also made rules specifying they are "for males only, not transgenders." But Zuhl added that he is very familiar with transgenders, well versed in the issues, and has even helped pay for some of his friends' surgeries.
"We all have rules and regulations, and that's what makes each one of our contests different. If we all catered to the same needs there would be no reason to have different contests. The reason we stay with male sexuality is because that's what we're about. I'm just the keeper of that tradition. I can't enter a woman's contest. I can't, as a foreigner, go enter a Canadian contest," said Zuhl. "If transgender men want to compete in a leather contest there are vehicles in which they can do that. I totally empower the trans people. I support them and do not have any issue with it. We're there to support, help, and empower them and give them anything they need to support their cause. But we're not going to change our rules. And it's not discrimination."
In fact the same contest rule that keeps transgender men out of LeatherSIR/Leatherboy is also the same one that recently allowed someone female identified to hold the title, said Zuhl.
"He was male identified when he entered the contest," Zuhl explained. "Then he came out as a transgender woman, with six weeks of his title left. He was very nervous, but I said, 'This man deserves to be who he needs to be, and we need to empower him.' Nobody was going to take his title away, because they'd also be stripping down his dignity. As a human being with compassion there was no way I could strip that from him."
Zuhl added that if the MTF titleholder had known her identity prior to the contest, and disclosed that on the application, "it would have been a whole different story."
Fiske said that while he believes in a group's right to set their own rules, "it was the connection that did it for me," he said of the leather Pride contingent. "I'm asking the contingent to separate itself from the leadership and take a stance in the men's and leather community."
Zuhl said that his competition should not affect Hemphill and Holeman's local role as leather contingent leaders.
"These are stellar pillars of the community. They are also leathermen. They are heading a committee because people think they can do the job," said Zuhl. "Their affiliation with me should have no bearing on what they do in the San Francisco community."
"We are staying true to our roots that the old guard established 29 years ago right here in San Francisco," Zuhl summarized about the competition's position. "There are enough contest systems out there, and there's nothing wrong with having one that is for men who were biologically male at birth."
How such policies would be enforced is another question. Transmen are already leaders in many men's leather communities; while some are visible or have chosen to be out, others say that disclosing their status would simply mean inappropriately disclosing a piece of their medical history, and would only result in detracting energy and respect from leather traditions and competitions.
One leather community member, who asked that his name not be used, said he doesn't always disclose his transsexual experience before he plays in leather space "because it is far from the most important thing about me â€“ but they might feel otherwise. That is not fair to either me or them â€“ I am not seen for who I am, and they don't get to meet me, but only their stereotypes. If I wanted to be seen as not-me, I could have stayed a woman."
He added, "There is still so much advertising that FTMs are another type of woman, that I cannot both overcome that and make a real connection in the short time allowed at a run or event... I play, pretty bravely, I think, getting naked in the dungeon to bottom, and wearing what I need to, to top. Anything else isn't why I am in leather."