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.

Friday, August 5, 2005

International Ms Leather/Ms Bootblack Contest 2005

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #266, August 5, 2005)

PHOTO: International Ms Leather 2005, Jessi Holman Ahart (above), and International Ms Bootblack 2005, Suka.

Is it possible to have a good leather contest with only three contestants? How about with only one?

(Answer: It’s possible. Read on to see how.)

This year’s International Ms Leather (IMsL) contest, held in Omaha July 16-18, had three contestants. The accompanying International Ms Bootblack (IMsBB) contest had only one—which meant she had to single-handedly shine a whole bunch of boots during the weekend.

IMsL’s motto this year was “Quality, not quantity.” All the contestants were strong and distinctive competitors who gave a very good account of themselves. That, along with a seasoned production staff, made both competitions worthwhile.

And the new titleholders coming out of those contests certainly seem as if they have the requisite intelligence and passion to serve their titles well in the coming year.

The weekend’s action centered around the host hotel, Omaha’s Redick Plaza. Friday evening started with a meet-and-greet and basket auction. Each contestant had put together a “basket” of leatherwear, toys, videos, books, and other leather-related items. The baskets were auctioned off to benefit the new IMsL’s and IMsBB’s travel fund.

Following the basket auction, the Texans in attendance hosted a cigar-and-brandy party for those not attending the dungeon party a few blocks away.

There was plenty to do on Saturday. In addition to shopping at the leather/fetish vendor fair, Kansas City Leather University (<>) presented a total of nine workshops. Topics included knife play, spanking, and “ASL (American Sign Language) for Fun and Leather.” Best workshop title: “When Daddy Has Tits.”

The IMsL contest and show took place Saturday afternoon at The Max, a gay bar two blocks from the Redick. For those unfamiliar with The Max, it is one of the nicest, friendliest—and cleanest—gay bars anywhere.

After an opening phone-sex monologue (read in a hilarious deadpan by Stephanie Locke), the weekend’s judges were introduced. This year’s judging panel included a Minnesota representative: Vicki Knight of the Knights of Leather.

(The judges had already conducted private interviews with the contestants on Friday. Because there were only three contestants, the judges were able to spend a half-hour with each contestant. By comparison, the judging panel at recent International Mr. Leather contests has only had eight minutes for each contestant interview.)

The contestants presented their speeches and fantasy performances. All three women spoke so eloquently and from the heart that if there was supposed to be a time limit on the speeches, no one was interested in enforcing it.

The fantasies were as individual as the contestants who performed them. Eddy (sponsored by the Centurions of Columbus, Ohio) played a schoolmaster disciplining a student with a bad attitude.

Lady Faye (sponsored by Flesh & Fantasy and The Dallas Eagle) performed a surprising and disturbing fantasy that drew a strong reaction from many of the men in the audience (two words: Lorena Bobbitt).

Jessi Holman Ahart (sponsored by Baltimore Eagle, Black Rose, FIST and The Playhouse) performed a graceful yet passionate story about a gargoyle that comes to life when she sees an attractive woman walk by.

Entertainment while the tallymasters were tallying was provided by Dossie Easton, a San Francisco-based author, family therapist and leatherdyke. She performed a breathtaking recitation of her own poem, “Do Me.” This was followed by the traditional IMsL best-tattoo contest.

In one of the most memorable titleholder step-asides ever, outgoing International Ms Leather Lori Ellison made a brief but eloquent speech. At its conclusion she was surrounded by all the other female titleholders in the room—who then completely covered her by spraying her with cans of Silly String.

After the Silly String was cleaned up, artist and leatherman Ray Castro presented Ellison with her official title portrait.

International Ms Bootblack 2004 izzy passed the torch to the sole (no pun intended) 2005 competitor, Suka (sponsored by Cellblock Chicago and Lesbian Community Cancer Project). The fact that there was no suspense about the transition did not make it any less touching.

Finally came the announcement of the new International Ms Leather: Jessi Holman Ahart. She now joins a long and distinguished line of leatherwomen and activists who have held the IMsL title.

At the closing Victory Brunch on Sunday morning, contest producers Amy Marie and Megan Meek-deJarlais (IMsL ’93 and ’98, respectively) reminded the crowd that next year will be IMsL’s 20th anniversary. Planning is already in progress for this milestone celebration.