Friday, June 19, 1998

Symbols of Pride

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #80, June 19, 1998)

In honor of both Gay Pride and Leather Pride, this issue's column takes a look at the icons and symbols of the gay and leather communities. (Logos and other identity symbols happen to be one of my special interests, as well as one of the primary parts of my day job as a graphic designer.)

Green and Yellow: Color has always played an important part in enabling gay people to identify each other. In Victorian England the color green was associated with homosexuality. In the early part of this century, homosexuals identified themselves to each other by wearing green and yellow. What are the initials for "green and yellow"? G-A-Y. That's one explanation for how the word “gay” came to be identified with homosexuality.

Triangles—Pink, Black, etc.: Over time other colors, such as lavender and pink, became associated with homosexuality. One of the most prevalent gay symbols, the pink triangle, has its roots in Nazi concentration camps, where prisoners had to wear armbands emblazoned with colored inverted triangles to designate their crime. The most famous of these armband insignia are two yellow triangles overlapping to form a Star of David, which identified the prisoner as a Jew. Green triangles were for common criminals, and red triangles were for political prisoners. Lower on the totem pole, the pink triangle was for homosexual men. A yellow Star of David with a pink triangle superimposed on top identified the lowest of the low: a gay Jew.

Pink-triangle prisoners were often given the worst labor assignments and were subject to a disproportionate number of attacks by guards and sometimes by other prisoners. Even after the war was over many homosexuals remained prisoners, because the German laws making homosexuality illegal (which predated Hitler, incidentally, although he made them much tougher) weren't repealed until 1969(!).

In the 1970's gay liberation groups adopted the pink triangle as a symbol of the gay rights movement. It reminds us of the oppression and persecution we suffered then and still sometimes suffer today; among other things, it is the gay community's version of the Jewish Holocaust vow: "Never Again." The triangle is usually seen inverted (pointing down). But in the 1980's, ACT-UP (a group of radical AIDS activists) started to use the triangle pointing up to symbolize an active fight against oppression rather than a passive resignation to fate. If you've ever seen a "Silence=Death" bumper sticker, you'll notice that the triangle is pointing up. That's why.

Some prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps wore black triangles. This is not because they were lesbians—lesbianism wasn't included in the German laws against homosexuality, the idea evidently not being as threatening as homosexuality among males. No, black-triangle prisoners were those who exhibited anti-social behaviors. But in a Nazi society where women were expected to be good wives and mothers, lesbians certainly qualified as "anti-social," as did prostitutes and women who refused to bear children. Today, the black triangle has been reclaimed by lesbians and feminists in much the same way as the pink triangle has been reclaimed by gay men and the gay community in general.

Bisexuals have their own version of the pink triangle. It's really two overlapping triangles, one pink and the other purple or lavender. As far as I know, this is a modern adaptation and was not used in the concentration camps.

One final note on triangles: There have been apochryphal reports that burgundy triangles were used in the Nazi camps to identify transgendered prisoners, but this has never been definitively substantiated.

The Rainbow Flag: Some people don’t like the idea of the pink triangle as a gay symbol. They object to its Nazi origins and its focus on oppression. They prefer a more positive and uplifting symbol: the Rainbow Flag.

Rainbows have been connected with issues of gender and sexuality in Greek, Native American, African, and other cultures throughout history. In modern times, rainbows have served symbolic purposes for causes as diverse as Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and Eva (Evita) Peron's Rainbow Tour. But it was in 1978 that San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker made the rainbow a gay symbol when he created the first Rainbow Flag.

Baker came up with the flag in response to a local activist's call for a gay community symbol that could be used year after year. The first rainbow flag had eight stripes: hot pink (which Baker felt represented sexuality), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sun), green (nature), turquoise (art), indigo (harmony), and violet (spirit). Baker and thirty volunteers hand-dyed and hand-sewed the first two flags, which appeared in the 1978 San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. Subsequently, the 1979 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade Committee decided to use Gilbert's flag in the 1979 parade. However, some changes had to be made. When Gilbert asked the Paramount Flag Company in San Francisco to mass produce rainbow flags for the parade, he was told that "hot pink" was not a commercially available color in flag material. The flag was now down to seven stripes. Then the parade committee decided to make the flag six colors by eliminating the indigo stripe—that way the colors could be evenly divided along the parade route, with three colors on one side and three on the other. Royal Blue was substituted for turquoise, and the Rainbow Flag assumed the form in which we know it today.

From San Francisco in 1979, the Rainbow Flag has since spread around the world. (Imagine my surprise when I stopped recently at a factory outlet mall off a freeway in the middle of nowhere, and was greeted by the sight of rainbow flags hanging from the rafters as part of the decor. Was that just coincidence, or was the display person at that mall showing his or her "true colors"?) Rainbow flags appear on car windows and bumpers everywhere, and the six colors of the flag have been used in "freedom rings" and countless other products and fashion accessories.

Occasionally you will see variations on the Rainbow Flag, including a Rainbow Flag/Pink Triangle combination and a USA Rainbow Flag with a field of blue and 50 stars in the upper left-hand corner. And there is the "Victory Over AIDS" flag where the purple stripe on the bottom has been replaced with a black stripe to commemorate those who have been lost to AIDS. One of those we’ve lost is Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam veteran whose tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery reads, "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one." Before he died, he suggested that when a cure for AIDS is found, the black stripes should be removed from all the flags and ceremoniously burned in Washington, D.C.

Normally, the Rainbow Flag is displayed with the red bar at the top and the violet bar at the bottom. Occasionally, however, you will see an upside-down Rainbow Flag, and it's probably an intentional upside-down placement by a gay person who is also into new-age spirituality. I have been told that when the Rainbow Flag is inverted, the colors correspond to the first six of the body's chakras (in eastern and new-age spirituality, the chakras are the body’s energy centers). The color belonging to the seventh chakra (the crown, at the top of the head) is white, and white light is a combination of all the other colors of the rainbow.

The Leather Pride Flag: This flag was designed by Anthony F. DeBlase and was first displayed at the International Mr. Leather contest in the spring of 1989. DeBlase, still an active member of the leather community, is a noted artist, writer, editor and publisher who has been involved with many leather/SM publications over the years, including Drummer Magazine. Even though it's called a "Leather Pride" flag, it encompasses leather, levi, SM, BD, uniforms, cowboys, latex, and every other fetish that is identified as part of the leather/SM community. And just as the leather community includes all genders and sexual orientations, so the leather pride flag is not an exclusively gay symbol.

The common symbolism attached to the leather pride flag is this: the black is for black leather, the blue is for blue denim, the white stripe in the middle is for integrity, and the heart is love. Nice symbolism—but unlike Gilbert Baker, who knew the meaning of each of the colors of the Rainbow Flag, DeBlase has said he had no specific symbolism in mind when he designed the Leather Pride flag.

Some people outside the leather/SM community erroneously assume that the black and blue colors are derived from the phrase "beating someone until they're black and blue"; let me repeat that this is a mistaken assumption.

At least one person on the Web doesn't like the by-now-traditional Leather Pride flag. He thinks the heart is just too cutesy, and he has designed a more "masculine" leather pride flag which replaces the heart with rainbow-flag stripes in the upper-left-hand corner and adds chains in the upper-right-hand corner. There are two problems here, however—he seems to have forgotten that the leather/SM community includes more than just men and more than just gay people.

Bear Pride Flags: The Bear community, composed of men who are sometimes large and always furry, has gotten large enough in the last few years that the idea of a Bear Pride Flag seems a natural. But many competing flag designs are currently in circulation, vying for adoption as the "official" Bear Pride Flag. One common example of a Bear Pride Flag is shown here.

This year’s Minnesota Leather Pride Dogtag: Designed by your humble columnist, it superimposes a Leather Pride flag on the Minnesota state outline. This is the first year the Leather Pride dogtag has been produced in color. Show your Leather Pride by wearing it to the Pride Festival and while you’re marching in the Pride Parade. An invaluable addition to anyone’s dogtag collection, you can get yours at any of the upcoming Minnesota Leather Pride Weekend events; once you have it, it’s good for reduced admission for subsequent Leather Pride events during the weekend. (See details under “Upcoming Leather Events.”)

Upcoming Leather Events

Red Hanky Social
Wednesday, June 24, 7-9 pm, Minnesota Bar and Grill
This event is regularly scheduled for the fourth Wednesday of each month. If you’re into red hankies, this could be a nice prelude to this weekend’s Leather Pride events.

Leather Pride Kick-Off Bash
Friday, June 26, 9 pm-1 am, The Town House (St. Paul)
Start the weekend off right! Everyone who attends this events receives the 1998 Minnesota Leather Pride dogtag, which is good for reduced admission to other Minnesota Leather Pride Weekend events. Free beer and sodas from 9 to midnight. There will also be door prizes. Bootblacking will be available to help you shine all weekend. Donation $6 at the door, or $5 with a 1998 Twin Cities Festival of Pride button.

Leather Pride Booth at Twin Cities Festival of Pride
Saturday and Sunday during the Pride Festival
This year the Leather Pride Committee is hosting an informational booth at the Twin Cities Festival of Pride for leather organizations. If you’d like to see your organization represented, call for more information.

Leather Pride Saturday Sun-Down Party
Saturday, June 27, 6 pm-sundown (barbecue 6-8:30 pm)
Minnesota Bar And Grill Patio And Pool Room (Cedar-Riverside Area)
Gather for a leather sundown supper on the rooftop deck of the MNBar; enjoy the fabulous views of the sunset and the Minneapolis skyline. Menu: chicken breasts or brats with all the trimmings, and a champagne toast at sundown. Happy-hour drink prices will be in effect. Donation $6 if you already have your 1998 Minnesota Leather Pride Dog Tag, $8 if you don’t (or if you want another one). Show up with a 1998 Twin Cities Festival of Pride button and get another dollar off the above prices.

Twin Cities Pride Parade
Sunday, June 28—gather at 3rd and Hennepin from 10:30-11 am, parade starts at noon
All clubs, club members, titleholders past and present, and GDI’s in the Upper Midwest are invited. Bring your colors, bring your regalia, bring yourselves, and help carry the largest Leather Pride flag ever built in the U.S. and the largest Gay Pride flag in the Upper Midwest. Both flags are 50’ x 75’, so lots of folks will be needed to help carry them. There will also be a Leather Pride float for titleholders, club officers, and those who aren’t able to walk the parade route. This will be the first time the leather community has been at the front of the parade as one group. (The parade route this year is up Hennepin Avenue from 3rd Street to Loring Park.)

Leather Pride Wind Down 
Sunday, June 28, afternoon and evening, Rear Entry at Tropix
After marching in the parade and stopping by the Leather Pride booth, this is the place to be—conveniently within walking distance from Hennepin Avenue. There will be drink specials and leather vendor displays. And it’s your last chance to get your 1998 Minnesota Leather Pride dogtag! Donation $3 if you already have your 1998 Minnesota Leather Pride Dog Tag, $5 if you don’t (or if you want another one). Show up with a 1998 Twin Cities Festival of Pride button and get another dollar off the above prices.

Mark Your Calendar . . . 

July 10-12: The 6th annual North Star Regional Rodeo, presented by the North Star Gay Rodeo Association (NSGRA). They’re looking for volunteers to help with the rodeo—call if you’re interested.

July 17-19: The Atons present Gopher Broke, Lucky 13. It’s their thirteenth semi-annual run, and the theme is 1950’s leather in the spirit of Marlon Brando and “The Wild Ones.” For information and a registration form call; e-mail; visit; or write Atons of Minneapolis, Minneapolis, MN.

Friday, June 5, 1998

Twentieth IML Contest Heralds Birth of Leather Nation

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #79, June 5, 1998)

PHOTO: Tony Mills, International Mr. Leather 1998

PHOTO: IMLs #1 and #20: David Kloss, left, International Mr. Leather 1979, congratulates Tony Mills, right, International Mr. Leather 1998.

PHOTO: From left: Andrew Lennox, IML 1st runner-up; Tony Mills, International Mr. Leather 1998; Ed Ryder, IML 2nd runner-up; Matthew Duncan, International Boot Black 1998.

This year marked the twentieth anniversary of the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest in Chicago, but the contest shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, it just keeps getting bigger and more interesting.

This year’s contest weekend attracted so many people that six hotels (a record number) had to be used to house them all. Friday night’s contestant introduction at the headquarters hotel, The Congress, presented 62 contestants from 24 states, six countries, and Puerto Rico (including Mr. Minnesota Leather 1997, Roger Gregg). Also introduced were the judges and many previous IML titleholders including David Kloss, the first-ever International Mr. Leather (still looking extremely good twenty years later!)

Saturday night’s physique pre-judging was a new and worthwhile addition to the weekend: all the contestants were presented in their most appealing (i.e. minimal) attire. Being a first-time event, there were the inevitable staging difficulties—nothing that can’t be worked out next year, and nothing that stopped the crowd from enjoying the evening.

Sunday night’s contest at the Congress Theater started with the world premiere of “One Common Heartbeat,” a leather anthem by Gary Aldrich which got a standing ovation from the crowd. Other entertainment included the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps (ROTC), the She-Devils, and disco diva Linda Clifford, who got the audience standing, dancing and clapping along to her hit rendition of “If My Friends Could See Me Now” (an appropriate song for every one of the evening’s contestants). Another world premiere, this time of the leather documentary “In God We Trust, In Leather We Lust,” took place during the evening’s intermission. In his step-down speech, outgoing International Mr. Leather and Twin Cities hometown hero Kevin Cwayna had the vision to proclaim that leather is a community, a people, a tribe . . . and suddenly, we’ve become a Leather Nation. (He’s seen it first-hand this past year, so he should know.)

Production values for the evening’s show were uniformly high, and the pace was brisk. There were a few minor problems: contestants kept tripping over some poorly-placed on-stage loudspeakers, and a record number of contestants (including the winner) went over the allotted 90-second time limit and had their microphone turned off in mid-speech. (This also happened to Cwayna last year.)

The new International Mr. Leather 1998 is Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather Tony Mills, whose physique is so well developed that they broke the sash trying to get it around his chest. He is 36 years old, is on the Board of Directors for the Tom of Finland Foundation, and is the Leather Archives & Museum’s Regional Coordinator for South Florida. He was sponsored by Centaur Motorcycle Club of Virginia. For the second year in a row, International Mr. Leather is a physician. Sober Leather members take note: Mills has been in recovery for 3-1/2 years.

First runner-up Andrew Lennox was born in New Zealand but now lives in Australia. He currently works as an executive chef and was sponsored by Mephisto Leathers of Australia. Second runner-up Ed Ryder was sponsored by Leather Central Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; he is a retired dentist who is evidently well known to the Washington, DC leather community. During the physique pre-judging portion of the contest, he revealed that he has “put more porcelain in [emcee Frank Nowicki’s] mouth than all the American Standard [plumbing fixtures] in this building.”

The International Boot Black competition is held each year in conjunction with IML. This year’s winner was Matthew Duncan, the boot black at the DC Eagle in Washington, DC. He was sponsored by the same club that sponsored the new IML: Centaur Motorcycle Club of Virginia.

One final item of interest: among the 62 contestants, one was a first for IML—Billy Lane, Seattle Mr. Leather ’98, is a female-to-male transsexual. Lest anyone think he was a token contestant, it should be noted that he was one of the top twenty semifinalists.

Upcoming Leather Events

Ms. Minnesota Leather Fundraiser and Beer Bust
Friday, June 5, 8 pm-close, Town House, St. Paul
Ms. Minnesota Leather—she's back and ready to party! But, unfortunately, she's broke. So come help the Ms. Minnesota Leather Contest Committee welcome Kevin Cwayna and Roger Gregg back from IML. There will be door prizes and wet T-shirt/jock contests. Enter your ideas for a Ms. Minnesota Leather logo design and win weekend passes and more! Incidentally, the Ms. Minnesota Leather Contest will be held September 18, 19 and 20. For more information e-mail or call W.I.L.L.O.W. Productions

Mark Your Calendar . . .

June 26-28: This year’s Leather Pride Celebration has expanded to three days. Friday night kicks off the festivities at The Town House in St. Paul. Saturday evening features dinner on the rooftop deck at the Minnesota Bar and Grill, with fabulous views of the Minneapolis skyline and a champagne toast at sundown. Sunday afternoon and evening, after marching with the leather contingent in the Twin Cities Festival of Pride Parade, the party is at Tropix. In addition, plans are being made to have a Leather Pride booth at the Twin Cities Festival of Pride in Loring Park, which will be staffed by representatives of the various leather community clubs and organizations. Watch for more details.

July 10-12: The 6th annual North Star Regional Rodeo, presented by the North Star Gay Rodeo Association (NSGRA). They’re looking for volunteers to help with the rodeo—call if you’re interested.

July 17-19: The Atons present Gopher Broke, Lucky 13. It’s their thirteenth semi-annual run, and the theme is 1950’s leather in the spirit of Marlon Brando and “The Wild Ones.” For information and a registration form call; e-mail; visit; or write Atons of Minneapolis, Minneapolis, MN.

Date Change: August 21-23: The International Mr. Fantasy Weekend in Omaha, Nebraska. Minnesota will be represented by Mr. Minnesota Fantasy Ken Flanagan.