Friday, August 24, 2001

Look, Ma! I’m a Negative Media Image!

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #163, August 24, 2001)

Awhile ago I was sitting on a bus, casually reading what was then the latest issue of Lavender. Under “Letters to the Editor” I came across one that asked two questions: “(1) How much do we really love ourselves and each other” (hmmm, I thought to myself, I frequently write about those concepts in my column—better pay attention here) “if the one GLBT publication we have consists mainly of ads for anonymous sex, bars, and parties,” (well, there’s more to the magazine than that, but I think I see the point the writer is trying to make) “and information on sadomasochistic sex play?” (emphasis added)

Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. And to the sound of screeching mental brakes, my immediate and visceral reaction was “Whoa!—Wait a minute—Now we’re getting personal!”

This letter writer obviously thought my column was a Negative Media Image. I hadn’t felt so demeaned, devalued and dishonored since Trent Lott made his famous pronouncement comparing homosexuals to alcoholics, sex addicts and kleptomaniacs.

Eventually I regained my composure and continued reading: “All of this seems particularly and painfully ironic since it is sandwiched between articles on HIV and AIDS”—about which I have also written frequently over the years. And yes, it is ironic. Entire books have been written discussing this irony and how our community is reacting to it and dealing with it.

Next paragraph of the letter: “(2) How can we expect others to love us, and how can we love ourselves, if we portray ourselves primarily as a community obsessed with sex, looks, alcohol and illness?” Okay, that resonates with me—and somewhere amid all that information about sadomasochistic play I’ve managed to write two columns about Manifest Love, an organization holding seminars around the country that, among other things, consider this very question.

Continuing with the letter, which was soon going to run over to another page of the magazine: “Let’s go for media images (and self-images) that portray us as more politically”—(“correct,” I thought to myself as I turned the page, the writer is going to ask for “media images that portray us as more politically correct.” That’s not what the writer said, though)—“engaged and more loving.” Oh. Politically engaged. And more loving. Okay, can’t argue with that. Can I? Well, here are some items from the letter writer’s list of more positive media images:

• A column on “community activism”—Lavender has profiled many GLBT community activists over the years. But it’s interesting to note that in the “Community Activist” category in Lavender’s recent Crème de la Crème awards, “not a single person got more than one vote,” according to editor Timothy Lee. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s because the media isn’t giving enough publicity to community activists, whether community activists aren’t being diligent enough in seeking publicity, or whether community activism is in a lull right now.

• A column on “family life (one not written by a straight woman)”—well, let’s trash another columnist, shall we? Seriously, I’ve always been proud to have my column be in the same magazine as Abigail Garner’s “Families Like Mine” column. Lavender’s editorial scope has always been broad enough to give voice to GLBT subcommunities, like the leather community or straight children of gay parents, that haven’t been heard before. And if we don’t think it’s fair to be excluded from our families because we’re gay, why is it any fairer to exclude someone from our family because they happen to be straight?

• “Our favorite recipes”—Well, now that would just be redundant. According to the stereotype, that’s what we gay men talk about while we’re partying in the bars looking for someone with whom to have anonymous sex.

• “Family pictures (self-chosen and/or biological)”—Lavender, and the gay press in general, is and always has been our community’s family album. Every issue is filled with family pictures of one type or another. The issue in which this letter appeared contained several pages of photos from our most recent family reunion, Pride 2001.

• “Life in the workplace” and “artwork and artists in the community”—Every issue contains arts coverage and reviews, and much has appeared in Lavender about life in the workplace both positive (such as GLBT-friendly companies to work for) and negative (such as harassment issues—I’m remembering especially harassment faced by transgendered folks).

• “The Girl Scouts (they don’t discriminate!)”—No, indeed they don’t. Last year I wrote a column about a group called Queer Youth Exist, a safe place for queer people under the age of 21 to discuss issues, such as an interest in BDSM, that would be difficult to discuss elsewhere. It was created by two girls named Hedge and Katze as their Girl Scout Gold Award project.

So I would argue that Lavender is more than “mainly ads for anonymous sex, bars and parties,” and over the years I have tried to do more with this column than just provide information about sadomasochistic sex play—not that there’s anything wrong with providing information about sadomasochistic sex play, mind you. In writing this column I have tried to show that an important part of the leather/BDSM community is learning and expressing love and respect for oneself and others (which is exactly what the writer of the letter was calling for). It’s not for everyone and doesn’t claim to be. But I don’t think it’s fair for someone to say that because something doesn’t work for them, it has no value for anyone.

But I know that no matter what I or anyone else may say on the subject, some people will not hear it and therefore will not understand. Then it all gets down to the same old dichotomy: do we as a community bow to political correctness and present only what we think will be perceived as Positive Media Images in an effort to say to the straight world, “See? We’re just like you! Now will you accept us?” And do we therefore hide the drag queens and the leathermen and the dykes on bikes who so stubbornly refuse to be assimilated?

No. Whatever else the leather community is, it is not assimilationist. If other elements of the GLBT community are embarrassed by us and feel we’re Negative Media Images, our response to them must be in the same vein as the queer community’s response to the straight world. We say, in as proud and dignified a manner as possible: “Sorry you feel that way. But—we’re here; we’re also queer (same as you); get used to it.”

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Sunday, August 26

Leatherfolk, come together for an afternoon of bawdy fun and merriment at the Minnesota Rensissance Festival. Meet in the area between the Great Bear and the Great Hall (where the Feast of Fantasy is held) between 1:15 and 1:30 PM. Maps and ticket info can be found at: (This announcement courtesy of the Atons of Minneapolis.)

Friday, August 10, 2001

15 Years of International Ms Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #162, August 10, 2001)

The International Ms Leather (IMsL) Contest recently celebrated its crystal anniversary (that’s fifteen years) in Dallas, TX. According to contest promoter Amy Marie Meek of Omaha, Nebraska, “For fifteen years the International Ms. Leather contest has chosen women to represent the International leather/SM/fetish community to the public, and has provided a venue that allows leatherwomen to present their joyful vision of a positive leather image.”

International Ms Leather, Inc. was founded in San Francisco in 1986. Although there had been local women’s leather titles in a number of cities, at that time there was no national or international women’s leather title. The contest was designed to choose a woman to be a spokesperson for leatherwomen and to raise money for community organizations. In 1987, at a contest held in San Francisco, Judy Tallwing McCarthey became the first International Ms Leather. The contest continued to be held in San Francisco until 1994, when Anne C.S. Bergstedt won the title.

On September 13, 1994, Bergstedt resigned as International Ms Leather, and the title passed to Cindy Bookout. (Bergstedt, now known as Spencer Bergstedt, refers to himself as “Mr. IMsL 1994,” and although it is often assumed that the resignation was driven by transgender issues, it wasn’t.)

Also in September of 1994, Meek (who holds the title of International Ms Leather 1993) formed a production company named Bare Images Productions, Inc. and took over production of the contest. The contest started to travel and in recent years has been held in Chicago, San Diego, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Toronto. (Next year’s contest is slated for San Jose, CA—details at The focus of the contest weekend was also broadened to reach out to the men’s, bi, trans and het leather/SM communities. In 1999 the International Ms Bootblack (ImsBB) contest was added to the weekend.

This year’s IMsL weekend (July 19-22) started on Thursday with a contestant orientation and a Contestants’ Night Out. According to Meek, this year’s contestants were a good and dedicated group; one contestant lost her sponsor but still showed up in Dallas ready to compete, even though she had to ride a Greyhound bus from Kentucky to get there.

Judges for the weekend included the Twin Cities’ own PJ Knight as well as Kay Hallanger, “Fluffy” Swenson, Lynda Blakeslee, Mistress Mir, pat baillie and Dean Walradt. On Friday, while the judges interviewed the contestants, other weekend participants could shop at the jam-packed Vendor Fair. The evening’s traditional Basket Auction, in which each contestant creatively packages an assortment of kink-related merchandise, raised approximately $5000 for the IMsL and IMsBB Travel Funds.

On Saturday the Vendor Fair continued and a variety of workshops were presented; topics included bootblacking, erotic shaving, dirty dancing, and structuring Dominant/submissive relationships. Saturday evening’s contest and show, emceed by Connie Cox and Glenda Rider, presented the Speech, Fantasy Performance, Attitude and Image segments of the judging. Knight said later, “It was very difficult to judge them. I thought all nine contestants were just awesome women, and every one of them is very active in her local community.” Meek was also pleased with how the contestants presented themselves: “The fantasies were great, the speeches were great—we had a really fun time!”

Drum roll, please: The new International Ms Leather 2001 is Joni, who last year won the Ms. Olympus Leather 2000 title and who hails from Springfield, VA. First runner-up honors went to Linda L. Cox, Rocky Mountain Leatherwoman from Denver, and the second runner-up was Miss Barbrafisch from Toronto.

Charlie Flake from Denver CO won the International Ms Bootblack contest, with first runner up honors going to Sue from Las Vegas. That means that both international bootblack titleholders this year (Paxsen is the current International Mr. Bootblack) are from Denver, and both work at the Triangle Bar. So if you really want a good shine on your boots, you know where to go.

The weekend ended with a Victory Brunch on Sunday and the 7th Annual IMsL Pool Party on Sunday evening. But if there was anyone in attendance who still wanted more, they’ll have their chance this Labor Day weekend (August 31 to September 3) when, again in Dallas, the first-ever Ms. World Leather 2001 contest ( takes place. Billed as “A Different Kind of Contest for a Different Kind of Woman,” this will be the first leather contest (for any gender) where all judging events will be open to the public.

Does the women’s leather community need another contest? Obviously somebody thinks so or they wouldn’t be starting another one. But can the women’s leather community really support two contests and two titles? The men’s leather community has had two major international titles (IML and Drummer) for years. But the men’s leather community is larger, and over the years each title has carved out its own niche (a gross generalization here: IML is more political and Drummer is more erotic.). Both the men’s titles started at the same time, and over the years there has been very little sniping between the contests or the titleholders (actually, none that I’ve ever seen). Here’s hoping that both women’s leather titles flourish and complement each other; here’s hoping we don’t have a case of competing competitions.