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The Ties That Bind: International Mr. Leather 2010

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on May 26, 2010 4:20PM

Jeffrey Payne, International Mr. Leather 2009 (Dallas, TX). Photo courtesy of IML organizers.
This year’s International Mr. Leather (IML)—the gay community’s largest annual leather event in the world—is seeing a healthy uptick in attendees for 2010, according to IML coordinator RJ Chaffin, thanks to a rebounding economy. (Yes, even tough leathermen feel the sting of escalating travel costs.) Now in its 32nd year, IML has evolved from the “Mr. Gold Coast” bar contest held at Chicago’s Gold Coast leather bar in the ‘70s, to an international conference and competition for leather men and women, although an overwhelming majority of attendees are gay men. Held annually in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend since 1979, IML attracts everyone from the casual voyeur to the seasoned fetishist.

The conference's climactic event—the IML contest—features some 50 men engaging in a series of competitions that range from the “pecs and personality” contest to “leather image” to “presentation skills” (yes, each contestant is required to give a short speech). To qualify, IML contestants must be a winner of a bar or regional leather contest, or they must be sponsored by a leather bar, business, club or organization. The IML contest is many things to many different people—just don’t call it a “beauty contest,” says Chaffin, 57, with a sly grin. “This is not a weekend title. The winner of IML is required to make numerous appearances around the world and to raise monies for various groups and charities. Typically, the winner makes over 300 appearances in one year.”

One of the most popular attractions at IML is the cruisy, sociable Leather Mart, where vendors (110 in all this year, occupying 225 spaces at the Hyatt Regency Chicago) hock a dizzying array of leather and fetish wares. This year, the Leather Mart will feature a “Leather Market Stage,” featuring demonstrations (Voyeur alert!), lectures, and a variety of “leather-themed entertainment.”

Another change this year: IML is now “prohibiting marketing that promotes unprotected sex,” according to a letter sent to vendors from IML organizers after last year’s event. In other words, no more bareback pornography in the Leather Mart, a change that many attendees have said is long-overdue.

“For many years, our organization has always preached the importance of safe- sex,” explains Chaffin. “It has been on the lips of many people, [the fact that] we speak out on safe-sex, but allow vendors to promote bareback videos. The time has come for us to take a stand on the issue. It affected about three of our vendors and in fact, most vendors were pleased to see us take action on this matter. I would say for every negative e-mail we’ve received, we’ve received 15 supportive emails and letters,” says Chaffin, who has received calls and emails from organizers of similar events to gauge the reaction of attendees to the new policy. “We need younger people to realize that barebacking is not cool and very dangerous.”

Chicagoans—especially gay men and lesbians—are proud that IML calls the Windy City home, if for no other reason than the event is expected to bring in $14 million to the local economy, according to Chaffin. “But beyond that, it’s the sense of brotherhood and community that this leather-themed event inspires—true ties that bind—that makes IML much more than just a pageant.”