(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #235, May 28, 2004)
John Pendal, International Mr. Leather (IML) 2003, will be sashing his successor this weekend in Chicago at the IML 2004 contest. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him in front of an audience at Leather Leadership Conference 8 (LLC8) in New Orleans.
Pendal is a lifelong resident of England and currently resides in London. At the time of this interview he had traveled to 14 cities in the United States and 14 cities in Europe and Canada during his title year. He was therefore well qualified to present an international perspective on the leather community. He also talked about some of his experiences during his title year.
What are some of the differences in the leather scene on each side of the Atlantic?
The U.S. has a well-developed leather scene—you have lots of things away from a commercial environment. Whether they are in hotels or forests or are bike runs or BDSM education or the Leather Archives & Museum, it’s not all about commercial clubs with alcohol.
You have some freedoms in the U.S.—certainly when it comes to BDSM you can get away with a lot more than we can in the U.K. But you also have more restrictions. For instance, in San Francisco if you want to have a pint, a blow job and a cigarette you start off your evening in a bar and then go to a sex club. And then you go outside on the patio to have a cigarette. At The Hoist in London we do all three at the same place.
That’s convenient, but it makes the European leather scene very commercial, centered around bars and clubs, and that means it’s quite centered around alcohol.
There’s a higher standard of living in the U.S., which means a lot of people have dungeons and playrooms in their homes. Most of the apartments in Europe are so small you could never have a dedicated playroom—so your equipment is under the bed and you bring it out to play. And you have to “de-gay” the flat when your parents come ’round because there’s not a garage you can lock.
There’s a culture of giving to charity in America. American law encourages you, and it’s also a very philanthropic culture—perhaps because of your high standard of living.
On the other hand, the state provides a lot of health care in Europe that you have to do fundraising for in the U.S. If you have HIV in Europe it doesn’t matter if you have insurance or not—you’re going to get drugs from the state.
In Europe we’re a lot less concerned about status. In some of the cities I’ve been to in the U.S. people have told me things like, “Those are the tower blocks where the ‘A gays’ live.” In the U.S. you have in your newspapers roll calls of who’s given $500 to charity, who’s given $5,000. Even at some churches in the U.S., I’ve seen written up on the wall who’s given how much money—we don’t do that in Europe. We don’t brag about it because it’s not a big deal.
What about leather events and contests?
In the U.S. you’re very good at putting on big events like IML. Even Inferno [the Chicago Hellfire Club’s annual run, considered a “smaller” event by U.S. standards]—we don’t have anything on that scale in Europe.
There’s lots of travel within the U.S. to leather events because you don’t have to change money and you don’t have to learn a new language. But it’s rare to meet Americans who have traveled outside the U.S. In the U.K., 88% of our citizens have a passport—in the U.S. it’s more like 13%.
I think we in Europe have more diversity in terms of cultural experience, but that cultural diversity makes it harder to have big-scale events. You couldn’t get 15,000 people at an event in Europe without having eighty translators, while in the U.S. it’s enough just to have a sign-language interpreter.
The leather scene in Europe is a lot more relaxed. If you want to volunteer for something you don’t have to get a leather title first—you just do it. In the U.S. I hear people say, “Oh, he’s great in the leather scene, but nobody takes notice of him because he doesn’t have a title.” We only have ten leather titles in Europe because the only reason to have a title in Europe is to qualify to represent your country at IML.
In your title year so far, what have you enjoyed the most?
The place I was the most hedonistic was Kansas City. I call it the Axis of Evil: Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas. They cook you big meals, they pour you big drinks, they play hard and evil, and there’s not a lot of attitude. I get on with the Midwest.
I think the event I enjoyed the most was Dungeon down in Fort Lauderdale. It’s an SM educational event, it’s nothing to do with titles, it’s just family. Some of the best tops in the world are there, and if you have passion and enthusiasm you can end up playing with them even if you’re the biggest novice ever. Not all events are like that. I think that of all the events I’ve been to, if I had to go further into debt to go back to one it would be Dungeon.
A question from the audience: During your travels so far what has touched your heart the most?
Say I go to a bar to do a fundraiser. Yes, I have to fly there—I get on the plane, someone else buys the ticket. That’s easy. And they want me to provide a few things to raffle, so I bring along a signed photo of myself. Maybe I also bring some free t-shirts from The Hoist—how hard is that?
Ten other people go around the bar on their hands and knees for the whole night doing crotch-to-floor raffle strips and working really hard to get money out of the crowd.
I’m told at the end of the evening, “We broke records for a fundraiser on a Friday night! And it’s all thanks to you!” And I think it was that team of people who worked so hard to sell the raffle tickets—they’re the ones who deserve the recognition.
So, what has touched my heart this year is seeing people who put out chairs for an event, or take tickets for coat checks and give all the money to charity, without any recognition. Who volunteer to sell raffle tickets, or drive me somewhere, or get me drinks from the bar because they can see I’m busy and can’t get away.
They do all of that and I’m the one who gets the glory. And I think that’s wrong, and I need to find a way to address that after the year is done because I have a lot of people who ought to be thanked, and they’re not the usual people who get thanked.