What It’s Like To Judge A Women’s Leather Contest

Photo by Shilo Mccabe
‘Leather is tradition and education, invention and radicalism.’

“I used to get harassed on the street constantly. But since I started wearing leather, that’s stopped. Completely.”

Teagan was caressing my feet through my boots as I puffed on a ripe cigar. It was late Saturday night, or maybe early Sunday morning. We were on the terrace of the hospitality suite of the DoubleTree hotel in San Jose, California, so close to the airport that planes coming in for a landing seemed to pass dangerously close over our heads. We were here for the 31st annual International Ms Leather (IMsL) and 19th annual International Ms. Bootblack (IMsBB) contest.

I asked Teagan the same question I’d been asking everyone this weekend: What does leather mean to you? I’ve noticed when talking to leatherfolk that no one has the same answer and some don’t have a clear answer at all.

Teagan is a bootblack, and I was sitting for her in order to get a nice shine on the only leather shoes I had packed for the weekend — wide-heeled second-hand ankle boots with a panel of pyramid studs on the ankle. Bootblacking is not just a fetish for boots care (or, for some, “worshipping” or sensuously licking the leather); Teagan explained to me that leather care and repair is an honorable way for her to serve her community and preserve tradition.

“These are thirsty,” she observed, scrutinizing the boots as she decided what products to use. The attention made me feel incredibly tingly. Her hair was shaved close on the sides, slicked back in a mohawk, and she wore a leather bar vest over a leather button-up shirt. Her arms were covered in kinky tattoos, including a can of Hubberd’s shoe grease and a pin-up hybrid of Dr. Frank N. Furter and Darth Vader. Around her neck she wore a medal declaring her status as Southwest Bootblack 2017. We were surrounded by attendees who proudly wore back patches and medals declaring the titles they also held, some dating back decades.

I love getting my boots done at public leather events for two reasons. First of all, it’s theraputic, a kind of bodywork session for your second skin. Secondly, from my perch on a collapsible platform, my heels in silver stirrups, I could survey the entire party and even cruise if I was in the mood.

Everyone was finally in relaxed spirits — the contest winners had been announced about an hour ago. A weekend that for many involved high stakes pageantry prep had finally became a party, especially for the communities representing the winners.

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There was a strong representation of femmes in brightly-colored dresses over corseted waists, stocking seams running from the backs of their sky-high stilettos up under under their perky petticoats. Men with impossibly moisturized beards and head-to-toe military uniforms cradled bottles of beer and slapped one another on the back. Many of the looks represented fetishism as much as fashion — attire that doubled as style and turn-on. For a fetishist, sex essentially starts when they glide a latex pencil skirt over their silicon-lubed hips or snap the last button on their leather chaps.

I had opted for cotton high-waisted shorts and a slender chest harness made by Leather Coven. I had to stay comfortable all weekend, because for the first time in my years of attending BDSM conferences and parties, I had been asked to judge the International Ms Leather competition.

“Leather is a title, an identity, a style, and a practice,” the Women’s Leather History Zine begins. This simple artifact of folded and stapled white paper was available for free all weekend, near the vendors selling floggers and dildos and gloves; it was published this year by the Women’s Leather History Program Leather Archives, which is based in Chicago. The zine continues, “Leather is BDSM, kink, fetish, sexuality, sensuality, and asexuality. Leather is community, mentorship, charity, and activism. Leather is tradition and education, invention and radicalism.”

So, Leather can be an identity like “queer” or “kinky.” In fact, it’s a subgenre of both of those identities; not every bondage-loving gay person identifies as Leather, but it seems to be the right fit for sexual extroverts who want to skill share and centrally organize. For those who want to up their community leadership game, or even be the most popular person at the dungeon party, there is the tradition of title contests.

Leather can be an identity like ‘queer’ or kinky.’ In fact, it’s a subgenre of both of those identities.

International Ms Leather was founded in 1986 by Joann Lee and Alan Selby, partially to promote more female leadership in the male-dominated subcultures of the time. The Ms. Bootblack title was added to the contest by then-producer Amy Marie Meek in 1998.

If you were one of the ordinary civilians who happened to be staying at the DoubleTree the weekend of April 21, you might have gotten the impression that Leather was a goth Rotary Club. The posted schedule was packed with meetings from organizations like the San Francisco Girls of Leather, the Lesbian Sex Mafia from NYC, and the ALASKANS. Past titleholders strolling through the lobby proudly displayed regional titles on custom leather sashes across their vintages dresses, and on studded belts looped through their butt-hugging Wranglers.

The responsibilities of a title vary from region to region. Some are referred to as “player’s titles,” which means the titleholder represents their community by confidently whipping and fisting their way across the country. IMsL emphasizes education, so the contestants need to demonstrate comfort with public speaking as well as social affability. The winners tour the world, visiting gay bars and local dungeons, staying with complete strangers who welcome them because they’re family.

For different people I spoke with, leather was a church, a hobby, a sport, a “second skin,” a sexual proclivity, a signal of cultural affiliation, or the only social group they had ever felt a part of.

The fact that no one could give me a clear answer to the question What is Leather? did bring out my cynical side, making me wonder whether I was an interloper or not. Sometimes I felt like Leather might be a cult of circular logic. Eventually, I concluded that if Leather is a cult, it’s a meritocracy. That may be the entire point of having contests instead of just gathering to party and fuck. Yes, Leather is about sex, but it’s also about an expansive idea of intimacy. It’s a tradition that refreshingly undermines the nuclear idea of family values.

‘Leather was a church, a hobby, a sport.’

Pat Ballie, who was IMsL 1995, and in 2015 began the IMsL Foundation, told me that the title gives the holder permission to learn what Leather means to all of the subcultures of the subculture. “You’re the ambassador between communities,” she said. “The title gives you some cache, so you’re welcomed to different places. Once you’re there, people want to hear what you have to say.” To Pat, and her partner Sharrin Spector who has produced the contest since 2014, it matters that the titleholder has something to say, and that they take their role seriously. “We give them a travel fund, they sign a contract, and we do consider it a job,” Sharrin told me.

This year, it was my job to help pick the best person to represent all of these shifting definitions.

On Saturday morning, my fellow judges and I had sat under the fluorescent lights of a hotel meeting room and flipped through the binder we’d been given by the production committee. This was the interview portion of the contest. Each of the seven Ms Leather contestants and six Bootblacks had answered a series of questions including, “Top 3 Kinks,” “How did you come into leather?” and “What charities and organizations are you involved in?” Some of their answers remind me of high school leadership election speeches, and others of personal ads.

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The head judges every year are the winners from two years previous. Our IMsL head judge was Sarge, a no-nonsense bleach blonde in a cleavage-spilling corset who identifies as a “futch” (aka femme butch). Our IMsBB head judge was tabitha, a grinning trans woman with bright red hair. Teagan told me that tabitha’s confident visibility was the reason she and other trans women felt comfortable running for titles.

Each of the bootblacks took a turn explaining how they had repaired a “tech boot” that had been systematically wrecked by IMsBB alumni. Eliza stood out to me for her good humor and intelligence as much as her technical knowledge.

Then the IMsL contestants appeared before the judging panel one by one, presenting a five minute mini-workshop to demonstrate their ease with the education component of the title. Stella, a genderqueer drag king, demonstrated how to transform a femme woman into a masculine persona. Goddess Moon (many of the contestants use pseudonyms or “scene names”) showed how to “pervert” 99 cent store items like ping pong paddles for the traveling kinkster on a budget. Girl Complex gave a lecture on intersectionality, invoking Kimberlé Crenshaw and using a venn diagram to illustrate her experience as a queer black woman.

After a long morning of grilling the contestants on history, rope skills, and political articulateness, the judges had a few hours to spend time in the dungeon or by the pool before the weekend’s main evening event: the contest.

Few people who came to the hotel for this weekend would miss the chance to see and be seen at the Saturday night contest. Emceed by anal sex evangelist Tristan Taormino, the contest involved parades of the contestants in formal wear answering pop questions like, “If you could only take three kinky items to a desert island, what would they be?”

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Every year, the most popular category is the “fantasies,” in which each contestant performs a burlesque number to display their erotic desires. Mina, from Salt Lake City, was chased around the stage by a nun. Alaina, from Philly, appeared in a Divine wig and ate a chocolate bar dropped on the ground by a man in a puppy fetish costume. Girl Complex staged a church scene interrupted by daydreams of sinful spanking decadence.

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As I finished up my scores and turned in my notes to the tallymasters, the front runners were clear in my mind. Still, the winners weren’t decided by committee; the results would surprise us as much as anyone else in the room. The anticipation built as the 2016 titleholders Lascivious Jane and Bootblack Meghan give their stepdown speeches, showing slideshows of their years traveling the country at fundraisers, orgies, and pride parades.

When the winners were finally announced, the ballroom transformed into a sports arena, with hundreds of queers, fetishists, sex geeks, and leatherfolk leaping to their feet in thundering excitement as the sashes were passed from Jane to Girl Complex, and Meghan to Eliza. I was surprised by how proud I felt to have chosen the perfect people to carry on this legacy.

This year’s titleholders! Behold Eliza and Girl Complex.

A few hours later, just as Teagan lent me a hand to help me off her bootblack stand, Girl Complex and Eliza appeared on the hospitality suite terrace. This was their first official appearance together as “sash wives.”

Everyone at the afterparty burst into rowdy applause, as if the new IMsL and ImsBB were a newly married couple appearing at their post-ceremony reception. Watching their joy, I was reminded of another definition from the Leather Archives zine: “Leather is a braid of historical threads.”

The fact that 2015 titleholders Tabitha and Sarge were the head judges of my panel that day meant that their values informed our selection of this years’ winners. Two years from tonight, Girl Complex and Eliza will lead the judging panel that selects IMsL and IMsBB for 2019, and so on, and so on. This could be the completely queer way of passing on tradition, not with a chronological family tree, but with a twisted braid, across time.

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