“I am a role model simply because I’m here,” Mr. Leather Ottawa announces from his wheelchair in Michael Skiff’s Kink Crusaders, a documentary shot during the 2008 edition of the International Mr. Leather contest, held annually in Chicago for the past 30 years. Moving back and forth from archival footage and talking-head interviews with IML founder Chuck Renslow, past winners, and current hopefuls, to the contest itself, Skiff’s rote filmmaking is fortunately topped by his eye-opening subject matter. Within the LGBT community, leather men (and women) have always been marginalized—which, ironically, has allowed IML to slowly expand even as the gay community itself has narrowed its focus to chasing once exclusively hetero dreams. “We are inclusive. That’s one of the things that made us grow,” Renslow emphasizes, recalling the first black man to be named International Mr. Leather. Indeed, the latest incarnation of IML is a microcosm of true diversity, with a skinny WWII vet (returning soldiers were the fathers of the leather scene), a pierced German with a voice like Werner Herzog, an Asian top skilled in the rope bondage used on prisoners brought before Japanese emperors, and even guys from unlikely locales such as Iowa and Oklahoma, all duking it out with the cosmopolitan, gay white male base. When you’ve got straight guys proudly competing in a contest that started in the back of a frequently raided bar (Renslow reminisces about the early days of paying off local policemen during the earliest days of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s reign), this is progress.
And while images of butt-naked men wearing dog collars and fetching toys—set to the tune of Soft Cell’s “Sex Dwarf”—at the IML pup party no longer pack a punch in our media-saturated age (two wide-eyed Asian-American women staying at the hotel housing the competitors initially express shock before one notes that she doesn’t see a lot of “Asian representation” among the pups), Skiff offers up a photomontage that does. It’s a bit jarring to see Renslow, the wholesome-seeming businessman—who resembles Howdy Doody with a moustache and is courted every year by hotel chains seeking the almighty leather dollar—in old black-and-white photos, shaking hands with the likes of Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, and Chicago’s own homeboy Barack Obama. And the wearily predictable uplifting spirit (a former IML enthuses that he once felt he had to be in the closet as a physician who was gay, HIV positive, and IML—and now it’s a selling point) and declarations of victimization (a British submissive bitches about England’s backwards legal system that criminalizes BDSM) are leavened by some refreshingly honest moments. “I give points for people who look hot,” a judge and former IML admits, forthrightly adding that whether someone’s disabled affects his scoring. (The IML contest even embraces shallow gay white men!) Though this same guy also later discloses that though he’s a lot like his Mormon dad, they have a tense relationship because he has “trouble accepting [his father’s] lifestyle.”
As in the vanilla world, the policy of separate-but-equal mainly persists in regard to gender with the women having an International Ms. Leather contest of their own. (Ms. Leather Pride Illinois notes that her interest in BDSM “started when I was eight playing with my Barbie dolls. And Ken really paid for it.”) And while the People of Color contingent includes both black men and women, Queen Cougar, the African-American Ms. San Francisco Leather, proclaims she’s comfortable playing with anyone—except maybe Republicans. As the hodgepodge of Latino, Canadian, English, and German finalists give their speeches a leather man signs from the side of the stage. “We’re different, and that’s okay to be different,” a talking head announces towards the end (something the homogenized LGBT community too often forgets), foreshadowing the poignant celebration two years later when the first wheelchair reliant, female-to-male transgender IML is crowned. It’s nothing less than a Barack Obama moment for Chicago’s lesser-known sons.
Kink Crusaders will play on March 2 as part of this year’s Cinekink Film Festival. To purchase tickets, click here.