The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

International Mr. Leather Is Back To Make Chicago The Capital Of Assless Chaps

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on May 23, 2016 5:02PM

The crowd at a previous International Mr. Leather event (photo courtesy of International Mr. Leather, Inc.)

International Mr. Leather (IML)—considered to be the Big Daddy of leather and fetish events—offers kink enthusiasts a chance to play, shop, gawk and crown a pageant winner. The festivities draw nearly 17,000 visitors to downtown Chicago every Memorial Day weekend, according to IML organizers.

Held annually in Chicago since 1979, the conference began as a competition at the Gold Coast, a long-shuttered gay men’s leather bar. Eventually, the event outgrew the space, though, transforming into a multi-day array of fetish workshops, speakers and dance parties, with a Leather Market full of kink merch from chains to assless chaps.

This year, IML will feature 60 contestants from 25 states and seven countries, including the competition’s first competitor from Israel. There will also be 56 vendors exhibiting at the Leather Market at Congress Plaza Hotel, open to the general public.

Chicagoist spoke with Joey McDonald, IML, Inc. executive director, and Chicago's James Tyrcha, a 2016 IML competitor and trans man, about the ties that bind the leather community, why kink culture must embrace change to stay current and how IML virgins can get the most bang for their buck.

What advice do you have for first-time IML attendees?

Joey McDonald: I always tell people they should volunteer—you meet the most interesting people that way and you get a sense of what the magic is all about. Being a day-passer, as we call them, can be a very surface-level experience. It’s great people watching, but being a volunteer means you become a part of something wild and wonderful, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.

If you just want to dip your toe into it, come to the Leather Market and bring a friend. Wander around. Try things on. Hold things in your hands. Talk to the vendors and ask them why a particular thing seems to make people happy. The vendors have a lot of information and they know their craft.

You transitioned 10 years ago this year, James, but you came out to everyone about your transition two years ago. What prompted you to come out, and how has the leather and the IML community reacted?

James Tyrcha: I realized that was no longer possible because I did not feel genuine or authentic. I have been involved in the gay male leather community for eight years and no one really knew I had transitioned, they just knew me as a gay man. Once I came out to my leather family they were shocked with excitement and felt they truly got to know who I am. They welcomed me to a brotherhood and lifestyle that is full of acceptance and love.

At the end of 2015, the New York Times ran a story headlined, “Gay leather scene tones down from hard-core to dress-up.” The story argued that “the leather scene has lost much of its overt sadomasochist edge and is now more about dressing up.” Do you agree?

James Tyrcha: I hate it when people say leather is the same as drag without the makeup. Being a leather man or leather woman is not only about doing things for your community—we are kinky people and sex is the foundation of what we do. I don't feel that drag revolves around sex, it is more about entertainment. But at IML, the puppy community [which revolves around BDSM role play] has flourished like wildfire, transmen are heavily involved and our leather sisters have a major role in the leather, kink, fetish communities. Without acceptance of the new guard—individuals who might not necessarily associate their leather lifestyle with BDSM, and just enjoy the experience of leather—the leather community will stagnate and fall apart.

James Tyrcha, Mr. Leather 64TEN 2016—A Chicago leather competition and a precursor event to IML.

Joey McDonald: I agree that the leather scene has lost some of its mystical quality. But it’s happened before—look at pants with big pockets, combat boots, pea coats, military-inspired clothes. These were adopted by our community first, then by fashion designers, then the general public. I don’t think it’s explicitly a bad thing to be co-opted. It’s only bad when we forget what it meant to us.

Chuck [Renslow, IML's founder] has said over and over again that the leather community will die if it does not evolve, and that’s true of anything. Leather has moved from those stereotypical big leather jackets; straight-legged, rolled-up jeans; boots and handlebar mustaches to become a group kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys. These days, the gay leather scene is all about kink and men and women exploring personal boundaries and getting to know their minds and their body. At IML, we have created a safe space for like-minded people to meet.

The Millennium Park Chicago House Party (May 28) is the same weekend as IML. Do you see any crossover potential between the two events?

Joey McDonald: I do believe there is crossover potential any time a group rubs up against our event—and that is a good thing. Music is the great equalizer. Who doesn’t like Chicago house?

During IML 2015, Kevin Murphy—last year’s first-Runner-Up and Mr. Leather Ireland—proposed to his partner live on stage during the competition. Do you predict anything similar going down at IML this year?

Joey McDonald: There is nothing on the books right now, but we usually don’t get requests until much closer to the event. Something may come up. Sometimes, people meet here and go on to have a relationship, while others come to IML already in a relationship and it deepens as a result. I can see why people propose or get married at IML—you get to be around hundreds of friends that you don’t live near and you get to share that one shining moment in time with all of them. It’s a great thing. When Kevin proposed last year I about lost my stuff.

International Mr. Leather runs May 26 through May 30. For more information go here.

This conversation has been condensed and edited.