judging leather

Monday, December 19, 2011

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.

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