Friday, August 19, 2005

Knights of Leather Celebrate 20 Years

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #267, August 19, 2005)

GRAPHIC: Knights Colors (shield)

This year the Knights of Leather became the third Minnesota leather club to reach the 20-year mark. Founded as a club exclusively for leatherwomen, the Knights were reconstituted in 2000 as a pansexual leather club. I recently interviewed P.J. Knight, the most senior member of the Knights of Leather, who told me the fascinating history of the club.

The Knights of Leather was founded in January, 1985, by five leatherwomen. Shortly after starting the club, two of the founders moved to San Francisco. Another was with the Knights for two or three years. Another, nicknamed “Kooks,” was a member of the Knights for six or seven years and now lives in Florida.

The only founding Knights member still in the area is Red (now Russ) Helbig, who for many years was involved with Twin Cities Gay Pride, Leather Pride, and Minnesota Leather Encounter as well as the Knights of Leather. Helbig left the Knights about ten years ago.

For years I was under the mistaken assumption that Knight helped found the club and that it was called “Knights of Leather” because of her last name. Knight was not one of the five original members. She was, however, the club’s first pledge, or “squire,” in March, 1985. Three months later she became a full member and has been one ever since.

Although there were clubs for leatherwomen on both coasts, The Knights of Leather was the first club for leatherwomen in the midwest. According to Knight, initial relations between the Knights and the two men-only leather clubs at the time, the Atons and Black Guard, were on the cool side. The Knights wanted to attend The Black Guard’s Black Frost run but, in Knight’s words, were initially “allowed—and I use that word very deliberately,” to attend only the banquet and show portion of the run.

Relations warmed up somewhat when the Knights were invited to stay for the after-hours party following the banquet and show. The Knights next attended the Argonauts of Wisconsin run and, in Knight’s words, “That’s where the boundaries disappeared.” Word got out that the women were around and wanted to be involved.

Another factor that made boundaries between the men’s and women’s leather communities disappear was the AIDS crisis. As AIDS decimated the men’s leather community, the Knights showed their support for their brothers. The club’s five annual Bowlathons raised about $32,000 for AIDS organizations.

Knight remembers the Knights also helping on a personal level: “We’d go to some of the guys’ homes who were affected with AIDS and do what we could—just talk with them and their partners, straighten up a house, take somebody to the doctor—things like that.”

Still, the presence of leatherwomen in a dungeon made many leathermen uncomfortable. “Every time we went to a run we would be as polite as we could,” says Knight, “but yet step over a boundary and push envelopes and say, ‘Oh, no, I totally understand. When you’re done, let us know, because we would also like to use the dungeon.’” Knight says that the reaction from many men was “‘Really? Women do that, too?’ And we’d say, ‘Of course we do. And we’ve love to learn what you’re doing, also.’”

After attending many men’s leather club runs throughout the Midwest, the Knights held their first Tournament run in 1987. Tournament started as an every-other-year event, but quickly became an annual event due to popular demand. The run is modeled on medieval tournaments, a weekend of games, rituals, camaraderie, a formal banquet—and rustic, rough-hewn, candle-lit dungeons in the woods.

In 1989 the Knights, Atons and Black Guard jointly produced the first Minnesota Leather Encounter (MLE) weekend. The idea was to bring the men’s and women’s leather communities together and to hold two title contests, Mr. and Ms Minnesota Leather.

The event lasted three years before internal politics and highly visible power struggles tore it apart. Members of the Knights were publicly accused of stealing MLE funds, and those allegations were used as a justification for taking over ownership of the MLE event and titles.

An audit later proved the allegations totally unfounded, but by then the damage had been done. The Knights went into seclusion for about five years. The Mr. and Ms Minnesota Leather titles were separated and produced as separate contests, which took away the whole philosophy of bringing together the men’s and women’s leather communities to support each other’s titles. The leather contest scene in Minnesota subsequently dwindled to the point where currently there is no active women’s leather title.

The Knights’ membership dwindled to four women and then to only two: P.J. Knight and Vicki King (now Vicki Knight). The two spent a year trying to recruit more women, with no success. In 2000, with the support of five leathermen, the decision was made to transform the club into a pansexual leather club—open to all shades of both gender and orientation.

Since then the club has grown to a dozen full members, three squires, and more than 20 associate members. The Knights activism and visibility has grown, too. The club hosts monthly parties, and Knights members play significant leadership roles in planning and organizing other leather/BDSM community events such as Minnesota Leather Pride.

The Knights of Leather 20th-anniversary celebration weekend will include a Fantasy and Demo Night on Friday, August 19 at the Bolt Underground in Minneapolis (7-9 P.M.). A formal celebration and dinner (open only to those with advance reservations) will take place Saturday evening, August 20 at the Lost Spur Golf Course Banquet Hall in Eagan.

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