40 Years of Leather: International Mr. Leather celebrates four decades
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This year's recent International Mr. Leather (IML) weekend was its 40th anniversary. 40 years since Chuck Renslow decided to have a leather contest, a contest and weekend that in large part helped form the foundation of the modern leather experience.
Considering I have long and strong ties to Chicago (I was born and raised there), IML, and Mr. Renslow, it felt especially important for me to be there. Chuck passed away in June 2017, a loss that resonated throughout the leather world. This year's IML was a beautiful honoring of one of the most important men of the American, indeed international, leather scene.
He was certainly kind to me back in the 1970s when I was a newly minted kinkling leatherguy cruising Chicago's leather bars, sex clubs and baths. Chuck's kindness to me will never be forgotten. He was a truly remarkable man.
This year's IML weekend was packed with its usual share of amazing social gatherings, play parties, dances and other happenings, but throughout the weekend there were also many events, exhibits and tributes specifically to honor Chuck, an amazing man who was a mentor, leader, daddy and friends to so many of us.
One of the more beautiful tributes to Chuck came in the form of the speech delivered by Jon Krongaard, President of International Mr. Leather, Inc., on the final night of the International Mr. Leather (IML) and International Mr. Bootblack (IMBB) competition. Chuck himself utilized the speech timeslot each year prior to his passing. He'd focus on a message he felt would empower the community he loved so much. Every snippet of Jon's speech was a touching remembrance of Chuck.
"And this fraternity. This brotherhood of leather that Chuck so strongly believed in is real. Need proof? Think of your chosen families here with you tonight or those back home and realize that these amazing people probably would never have crossed your path if it wasn't for Chuck Renslow. His vision. His passion. His love of community is what ultimately brought us together. And even in today's internet-driven world, we are stronger than we have ever been."
Truer words were never spoken.
Of course, as Chuck would have wanted, the show must go on, and IML weekend yet again met high expectations for an extremely well run and welcoming event. It remains the gold standard of those big leather events that cater to the gay men's factions of our diverse leather and kink world.
Many assume that the contest is what draws so many to Chicago each year. For some, yes. But for most of the people I queried about why they enjoy IML, their reasons aren't related to the contest at all.
Rekindling friendships. Connecting with family. Brotherhood. The love. More sex and play than anyone could want. The onsite Leather Market that once a year becomes the largest kink and gear shopping opportunity in the world. Great dance parties. The sense of living history. Meeting new people. Exploring newly discovered kink proclivities in a place that feels safe and comfortable. Experiencing a few days where one can be their authentic self. Eye candy.
Seeing how the leather/kink scene is changing in new and positive ways. Laughing a lot. Volunteering. Knowing there's a sober support system while getting one's kink on. Seeing the international scene in one place. The special, long-awaited play date. Amazing conversations. Lots of hugs and kisses.
Those were just some of the reasons people told me they loved about their IML experience this year. And yes, many did mention the contest. Contestants, handlers, friends and the audiences enjoyed an extremely well-run contest emceed this year masterfully by our own local, Thib Guicherd-Callin.
There were dozens of official IML events taking places Thursday through Sunday of IML. I can't possibly highlight them all. But if you meander over to the IML website you can still scan the Visitor's Guide Event Schedule and see all that takes place.
And that's just the "official" stuff. There are countless events that happen outside of the official schedule as well. There's something for every type of kinky guy at IML. I attended a few of the official and unofficial events. www.imrl.com
The Flashback event co-emceed by our own Lenny Broberg was a standout for me. I'm not going to go into the specifics of what Lenny did for me personally in front of hundreds of my family in attendance because I'll cry again while typing this, but he showed what an incredibly decent and kind man he is, and I'm honored to call him a long-time friend.
At the Flashback event during which some friends of the outgoing titleholders lovingly poke fun at them, Ralph Bruneau, IML 2017, and Ryan "Pawlish" Garner-Carpenter, IMBB 2017, endured with smiles and laughter as their friends pummeled them with jibes and dish.
Then these two fine outgoing titleholders delivered passionate speeches as they stepped down from their title year to welcome in the new titleholders to be chosen 48 hours later. Both of these men did the titles proud and showed what decency looks like.
A highlight for me was yet again the San Francisco dance party held each year in the host hotel, sponsored by Folsom Street Events. At 64 years of age I danced in nothing but a jockstrap, boots and a harness, a rarity for me lately, and it was joyful and liberating. I'm still glad some of our events allow for such spaces to be ourselves in a hyper-sexualized social environment.
As for the contest, our two local entrants, Matt Welch, Mr. SF Leather 2018, and Stephan Ferris, Mr. Friendly SF 2018, both did our Bay Area proud. In the end, Stephan ended up proceeding into the Top 20 competition Sunday night and ultimately wowed the crowd with a rousing speech on HIV stigma that helped propel him into the second runner-up spot on the podium.
Atop the IML podium were: the new IML 2018, James Lee, Mr. Kentucky Leather 2017; first runner-up Sandro Cossero, Mr. Leather Belgium 2017; and second runner-up,
In the IMBB competition, the new IMBB 2018 is Lucky Rebel, Mr. Oregon State Leather 2016. First runner-up is Pup Roke and second runner-up is William Bootblack Knight, 2017 Colorado Bootblack.
There were 71 contestants this year for IML and 4 for IMBB. I know or met a wide swath of them and I was impressed by the quality of men who entered this year. It was a stellar class and they should all be proud of themselves.
IML/IMBB winners aren't chosen in a vacuum. There is always a panel of judge notables for both competitions.
This year judging IML were: Ralph Bruneau, IML 2017; Q Darkwolf, Mr. Eagle NYC 2016; Werner Hall, Bavarian Mr. Leather 2016; David Kloss, IML 1979 (yes, the very first IML); Drew Kramer, Palm Springs-based community activist and organizer; Sammy Sklover, IMBB 2013; Rick Storer, Executive Director of the Leather Archives & Museum 2002-2017; Sal Susino, New Jersey-based producer and community activist; and Karen Ultra, long-time IML past staffer and well-known emcee and educator.
This years' IMBB judges were: Ray "Pawlish" Garner-Carpenter, IMBB 2017; Bay Area local Tegan, International Ms. Bootblack 2018; and Richard Savvy, Sydney Mr. Leather 2012, also known as "The Naked Barber."
Few realize the amount of work that goes into judging IML/IMBB. Having been a past IML judge myself, I can attest to the amount of time and dedication it takes to be one of these judges. They did their job, and did it well, and we have a great set of men representing the titles for 2018.
I noticed quite a few women in attendance this year. While the weekend is absolutely focused on kinky gay men, a small percentage of women have always attended and, in fact, make up quite a few of the volunteers that make the weekend happen. Chuck was always about inclusion and IML has done a good job with that historically.
Oh, and I got laid a few times at IML this year. For me, it's still about the friends, connection, sex and play that ultimately brings me back to IML just about every year. If you haven't been, I highly recommend it. Maybe you'll get laid too.
For Leather events, visit http://www.ebar.com/news/news/news//261299
Race Bannon is a local author, blogger and activist. You can reach him on his website, www.bannon.com.