Friday, March 31, 2006

The Non-Verbal Language of Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #283, March 31, 2006)

Leather’s use of symbols for non-verbal social communication is conscious, intentional, creative, inventive—and relentless. A person in leather is a veritable billboard. If you know how to parse the symbols, everything means something.

Let’s start with the basic concept of left and right. Items worn on the left (keys, armbands, wristbands, floggers, hankies sticking out of pockets) indicate the wearer is a top or prefers the active role. Such items worn on the right indicate the wearer is a bottom or prefers the passive role. (Items worn in the middle indicate the wearer is a “switch” and can be flexible.)

In social situations this left/right marking is handy. If you’re talking to someone face to face, and their accessories are on the same side as yours, that means you might be a good match.

If their accessories are not on the same side as yours, you are talking to another person who prefers the same role you prefer. In that case there’s nothing to stop you from switching your armband from one side to the other—unless they do it first.

Minnesota Leather Pride recently held a roundtable discussion on leather’s various symbols and what they communicate. Among the symbols discussed at the roundtable was the hanky code—displaying hankies in one’s back pocket whose colors correspond to various sexual activities in which the wearer is interested.

According to one source the practice comes from the San Francisco gold rush of 1849. Since the miners were mostly men, at evening dances they used back-pocket bandanas to indicate who was willing to lead (left pocket) or be a “girl” (right pocket). The modern hanky code started in the 1970s, when it was seen as a good way to visually signal sexual preferences in a noisy bar.

Communicating by using the hanky code is known as “flagging,” as in “See that guy flagging red right? Maybe you should go talk to him.”

If you see someone flagging a color that dovetails with your interests, go strike up a conversation and see what develops. You can also flag your interests, and maybe someone will strike up a conversation with you.

Ideally you’ll both be wearing the same color, but in opposite pockets. This is no guarantee there will be any attraction or chemistry between you, of course. But if the attraction and/or chemistry is there, the hankies can make a nice conversation-starter.

There are readily available lists of the different colors of hankies and what they mean. A short list might contain the ten or fifteen most popular colors; the most complete list I’ve ever seen covered two full pages in a magazine.

If the idea of having to memorize all those colors seems overwhelming, just remember that a) you can always have a cheat sheet in your wallet, and b) you only have to memorize the colors that reflect your interests.

There can be regional variations to the hanky code, and in the dim light of a leather bar it can be difficult to tell the difference between certain colors. When in doubt, ask, and see where the conversation goes.

Other apparel items that communicate status include hats, harnesses, collars (padlocked or not) and even button-fly jeans (certain buttons left unbuttoned).

Almost every surface of every garment is open to decoration that reveals something about the wearer—club patches, run pins, a studded vest or belt displaying a leather title. Even the decorations on a person’s skin—tattoos and piercings—communicate something.

This non-verbal language of leather evolved because it’s an efficient method of communicating if you know the code, and it’s hidden in plain sight if you don’t. It lets us screen to see if another person is “one of us,” if they “speak the language.”

There was a time when this was necessary, and perhaps it still is. But some people are starting to wonder if this colorful and rich language is marginalizing us.

Might the codes and protocols of leather be a turn-off to people, especially younger people, who don’t see the need to buy a new wardrobe and learn a new language in order to participate? If leather seems to lack an influx of younger people, that might be one reason why.

Victorian-era society had a rigid set of rules, codes and signs for courtship. Ladies of the era used their fans, gloves and parasols to signal interest, or lack thereof, to their male suitors. Someday the hanky code might seem as quaint.

On the other hand, author John Molloy’s 1970s-era “Dress for Success” books were popular because they demystified the code of corporate business dress. Three decades later, not much has changed—wearing the wrong clothes can still get in the way of career advancement.

Codes come and go. Some say the hanky code and leather’s other non-verbal signals are being made obsolete by the internet. Yet a recent internet search for “hanky code” showed that the idea is being appropriated by other people. (Christian hanky code, anyone?) Maybe the hanky code’s ultimate destiny is to be yet another gift from leather to mainstream society.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Leather Life Interview: Mark Beckler, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2006

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #282, March 17, 2006)

PHOTO: Mark Beckler

Mark Beckler, the new Mr. Minneapolis Eagle, is the eighth man to hold the title. In slightly more than two months he will represent The Minneapolis Eagle, and Minnesota, in the International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago.

Beckler is now preparing for that next level of competition. Part of that preparation, of course, is being interviewed by your humble columnist.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born?

I was born in Mandan, North Dakota, and I grew up there. I went through Catholic grade school and then Mandan High School.

Mandan is a town of about twenty thousand people. The population of North Dakota is gradually declining—there are fewer people in the whole state than there are in the Twin Cities.

Are your parents still there?

Yup, they’re still living in Mandan. They’re both retired. I have a father who’s very artistic and a mother who’s business-minded. My parents have a really great relationship. They’re still married—it’ll be forty-four years in June.

What was it like growing up in North Dakota?

I think I’m really fortunate. I probably wouldn’t change anything: my experiences as a kid, coming to terms with my own sexuality, discussing it with my parents and my brothers.

My brother is the most phenomenal person in the world. I remember when he and I had “the discussion.” It was probably the latter eighties, early nineties, and he said, “You know, right now it’s really kind of cool to have somebody in your life who’s gay. And I’ve got the coolest person in my life who’s gay, and he’s my brother.” I thought that was really a nice thing for him to say.

What did you do after high school?

In college I started out as an art major. Made a switch to engineering major. Then I made another switch to architecture. I completed about three years of the program at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

I was paying for my own education, and I was very independent. I decided I was not going to graduate with $30,000 in student loans, and I chose to take some time off from school. I went to work full time—I was working two, three jobs. I ended up going back to school and finally got my finance degree after, I think, eight years of college.

When and how did you get into leather?

It was something I gradually got exposed to over the course of my life. That image of the Tom of Finland type of person has always been in my generation—this very attractive, masculine type of character.

I got into it basically because it was something that I wanted to be like. I wanted to have that kind of look, that outward appearance, if I could. I was always such a skinny little guy in high school. It awed me, inspired me.

Why did you enter the Mr. Minneapolis Eagle contest?

I was going to enter it last year. Unfortunately, my work schedule did not allow me to do it then.

I’ve had a really strong work ethic all my life. I work really hard—I get a lot of fulfillment out of accomplishing things in a work environment.

But a lot of people have told me that it rules my life too much, and I agree. This year I was assessing where I was in my personal life, and I decided I wanted to have more of a balance. That’s really what my efforts are going to be this year. So I decided, you know what, I’m going to enter the contest this year.

What other activities are you involved in right now? Your contest entry form said something about the rugby team?

This year I’m going to be playing rugby with the Minneapolis Mayhem. I’ve only been to one practice—the formal practices really start next week. They kicked my ass. I can’t believe how out of shape I am. But it was a lot of fun.

I used to play softball with the gay softball league years ago. Slid into home base, cracked my leg, fractured it in five pieces, had surgery. So I haven’t been doing anything from a team sport perspective for quite a few years.

The rugby team was a great opportunity, and it looks like a lot of fun. Hopefully, I’m not going to get too banged-up in the next few weeks.

What do you want to accomplish as Mr. Minneapolis Eagle, either at the contest or during the rest of your title year—or if you win IML?

I want to make sure I get to meet a lot of people. I want to make sure I represent Minneapolis the best I can. When it comes to the [International Mr. Leather] contest I’m going to do my best. And I’m just going to be who I am.

If I win IML—you know, when I entered the contest in Minneapolis, a lot of friends of mine said, “What if you win?” And I said, well, you know what—let’s cross that road if that happens.

Friday, March 3, 2006

Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2006

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #281, March 3, 2006)

On Saturday evening, Feb. 12, Mark Beckler was chosen Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2006. First runner-up was Mike Grandys, second runner-up was Tim Tormoen, and third runner-up was Cornelius Magee.

Even though it’s the Mr. Minneapolis Eagle contest, Saturday evening’s stage portion of the contest was actually held next door at The Bolt, and a good crowd was on hand to see the action.

The evening’s contestants were introduced during the traditional Keg Walk, in which each contestant hauled a beer keg through the crowd up to the stage. Contestants also answered questions, one funny and one serious, and performed a two-minute erotic reading. (The private interview portion of the contest took place Saturday afternoon in the Bolt Underground.)

Returning for another year of emcee duties was Minneapolis Eagle and Bolt manager Brian Anderson. Judges were Todd Leek, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2000; Gregg White, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2003; Sam Carlisle, representing The Atons of Minneapolis; and your humble columnist.

Beckler will go on to compete in the 2006 International Mr. Leather contest (<>), Memorial Day weekend in Chicago.

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Emcee Brian Anderson kept the action moving at a brisk pace.

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Private interviews: Cornelius Magee.

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Keg Walk: Cornelius Magee.

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Private interviews: Tim Tormoen.

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Keg Walk: Tim Tormoen.

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Keg Walk: Mike Grandys.

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Question and Answer: Mike Grandys.

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Question and Answer: Mike Grandys.

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Question and Answer: Mike Grandys.

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Erotic Reading: Mike Beckler.

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Erotic Reading: Mike Beckler.

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Outgoing Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005 Angel Rodriguez.

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Outgoing Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005 Angel Rodriguez.

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Outgoing Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005 Angel Rodriguez.

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Outgoing Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005 Angel Rodriguez.

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Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005 Angel Rodriguez congratulates his successor, Mark Beckler.

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Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005 Angel Rodriguez congratulates his successor, Mark Beckler.

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The 2006 contestants with Angel Rodriguez, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005.

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The 2006 contestants with Angel Rodriguez, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005.

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Mark Beckler, the newly chosen Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2006.

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Four judges, four Mr. Minneapolis Eagles. From left: Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2000, and judge for the evening, Todd Leak; your humble columnist, judge; new Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2006 Mark Beckler, front, with outgoing Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2005 Angel Rodriguez behind him; Sam Carlisle of The Atons of Minneapolis, judge; and Gregg White, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2003 and a judge for the evening.