Are Leather Titles Necessary?

  • by Race Bannon
  • Saturday February 7, 2015
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Finalists at the International Mr. Leather competition in Chicago last year.
Finalists at the International Mr. Leather competition in Chicago last year.

On Wednesday, January 28, the San Francisco Leathermen's Discussion Group (LDG) hosted a panel discussion named "Are Leather Titles Necessary?" at the SF LGBT Center.

The discussion was to answer such questions as: Is a leather title necessary to take a leadership role? What compels contestants to run? What do we expect of titleholders and how has that changed over time? Are titleholders meeting the BDSM/Leather/Fetish community's expectations? Are there too many title contests?

Erik Will, Chairman of LDG, acknowledged the tricky nature of the topic. He said, "LDG is known for examining challenging topics with a respectful and smart take on the pulse of kinky men and their allies. Using truly state-of-the-art social media, we asked our expert panel to explore a wide range of questions for intelligent examination, and live broadcasted the experience to a global audience."

LDG did an amazing job pulling off both the in-person event and the live broadcast. About 150 people attended, with dozens watching the broadcast over the group's YouTube channel, the recording of which you can view at

There was little consensus around much of what was discussed, nor were there any great epiphanies or new ideas. But as the night unfolded it was clear that opinions about contests and titles are all over the map.

The panelists, myself, Joe Gallagher, Graylin Thornton and Eric Paul Leue, all known community members and titleholders, had a wide range of answers to the questions posed by the moderator, Bob Goldfarb, LDG's Program Director. I'm not going to identify who said what because panelists often agreed with each other while others disagreed. Since I can't paraphrase everything that was said here, if you have a strong interest in this topic, watch the recording.

In opening statements, panelists offered their initial thoughts. Maybe we take leather contests too seriously. For those who do win, they must continually earn the respect, attention and courtesy of others. Newcomers to the leather and kink scene should feel that titleholders are accessible. One of their main functions is to introduce and connect people.

Contests need to be clear about the contest's focus and purpose. Picking a hot guy? Fundraising? Bringing money into a bar? Or whatever. It's lack of clarity that leads to such varying opinions and disagreements. Of course, some people enter contests just for fun and perhaps no other reason was really necessary.

As to why some contestants disappear if they don't win, reasons given varied. Everyone is pulling at titleholders and wants a piece of them. Everyone has different expectations of titleholders. Some of those expectations become burdensome. Contestants want to do the right thing, but it can become overwhelming.

The panelists agreed that you don't need a title to do good things for the community. Great people do great things because they are great people, not because they won a title. It might give you a platform, but it's really ultimately about the person and their initiative.

Titleholders spend a lot of their own money carrying out their title year, often huge sums of money.

Since many titleholders report not having much sex or play during their title year, many want to take a break and get back to doing just that.

As to what titleholders should be doing and how they can do it better, too many contestants have handlers and coaches that beat them down before they send them into the contest, having instilled fear in them rather than anticipatory joy. Do contests with people you trust, not people assigned to you, and do it in a way that feels comfortable and genuine.

Once a bar title contestant wins, he or she is getting ready for the next level of city contest. The same applies for going to the national titles. There's no time to do much else. Make local titles about being local. They are "our" titleholders and should work locally, not be on the road so much.

Alternatively, maybe the titleholder should decide what they want to do and not have that imposed. Yes, winners must comply with the minimum duty requirements, but otherwise should be allowed to do as they please.

Regarding the lack of contestants in some local contests, it was suggested, using the Mr. SF Leather contest as but one example, that contests should generally be open to anyone rather than always competing first in what is often called a "feeder" contest.

Panelists were later corrected that Mr. SF Leather is an open contest requiring only a sponsor, but some stated that this is not the public perception and the contest's open status should be more widely publicized. Perhaps even the sponsor requirement should be dropped.

One panelist sometimes likes having fewer contestants because it gives him the opportunity to know them better.

There was some disagreement about how much contests mean to the community these days. One panelist believed that in the past, contestants had already done a lot to build a community reputation prior to entering, whereas today that's often not the case. He felt titles should be the next step after doing some community work and not the jumping off point.

When asked if we could be doing a better job of picking judges, it was suggested that maybe we're overly inclusive. Rather than filling judging panels with arbitrary diversity standards, judges should be picked simply because they'd be good judges.

Maybe we need a new crop of judges. Perhaps less well-known people might judge in different ways or better than the usual judges. The judging network also often formulates a type of groupthink that proliferates the same views and perspectives, thereby eliminating the chances for contestants who might not fit those preconceived molds.

Titleholder selection criteria came up. Judges, contestants and the public should be given specific, not nebulous, qualifications. Contests often simply lay out vague qualifications and give judges absolutely no guidance. It's important to remember the entire judging process is a subjective affair and not even remotely objective.

Producers of contests need to be honest regarding why they are having the contest. Is it to pick a person who will look great on a poster? To select a spokesperson? To select a fundraiser? Such contest objectives should be clear and public.

So why does one run for a title and how might that compare to the actual experience? When asked, one panelist considered his running a next step in a natural progression based on his previous work. Another entered because he admired a previous titleholder and wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Fun was front and center as a perfectly viable reason to enter a contest. One panelist said that his title spawned many opportunities to do good things that he might not have been able to do otherwise. Maybe you don't have to have a long scene history before running for a title.

Must titleholders be into BDSM? No one felt BDSM was a requirement. However, with one exception, everyone agreed that a contestant should be into some form of kinky sex if they are to be truly reflective of the leather and kink worlds.

Regarding newcomers to the scene, it was mentioned that the Bay Area is lucky because there is always something going on here at which people can volunteer and participate. This can form a good foundation for running for a title in the future.

However, another panelist clearly stated he doesn't believe in rule books, and that nothing should hold anyone from entering a contest, regardless of whether they are a complete newcomer or seasoned veteran. He didn't believe you need to be kinky to run for a title.

If contests were open to newcomers and didn't simultaneously treat those newcomers like experienced leatherfolk, then there's no reason a newcomer can't enter the scene via the contest path. But contests don't typically do that and instead try to coach and handle and otherwise prepare newcomer contestants to appear as if they are seasoned kinksters; that's a serious disconnect.

An audience member suggested that titleholders used to serve a different function and asked what we've done to adapt our titleholders to today, out from behind their computers.

Most agreed that being social media-savvy was a requirement for the modern titleholder. Rather than pine for the old days, perhaps we should accept that social media is simply the way younger folks communicate and organize.

Since we no longer have an abundance of bars, sex clubs, baths and other erotic infrastructures, social media now serves as that infrastructure. The core values of the past are still there, they just manifest differently.

As for the proliferation of new contests, some felt that we have far too many while others said that sometimes contests are created for the wrong reasons. Too many contests might dilute the scene and aren't helping.

Another perspective was voiced that, while once upon a time the contest scene and the mainstream leather and kink scene were embraced by essentially the same folks, now the contest circuit and the mainstream scene have diverged and overlap less. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the contest circuit has become its own self-sustaining ecosystem separate from much of the rest of the leather and kink world.

Our scene is now comprised of distributed kink networks and it's no longer a monolithic leather scene. Older leatherfolk sometimes still think we're a standardized, monolithic scene, but we're not.

An audience member was disappointed that the panel didn't discuss what he referred to as working titles, usually specific local titles, and it's true that most of the discussion was about titles that don't have specific working requirements.

Titleholders might sometimes not be approachable for newcomers. It was agreed that titleholders should be approachable, but that's not always possible with the many directions that titleholders are pulled in. Every effort should be made to be a resource for newcomers, but that's not always possible.

Maybe local titleholders shouldn't be traveling the country so much and should instead be staying in their locales interacting and assisting newcomers more readily. Maybe title sashes and medals should be worn sparingly. They can act as a block to interaction, making the titleholder seem less approachable.

Overall, the entire evening proved that leather contests and titles will continue to be a hot topic of debate around which no real consensus seems to be forming. For now, contests appear here to stay and there were no quantum shifts in thinking.

But having the discussion was valuable, since it clearly illustrated that not everyone has the same opinion of leather contests, their value, how they're run, or if they should be as prevalent as they are today.

Race Bannon is a local author, blogger and activist. You can reach him at

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