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Leather: More than a Beauty Contest

By Michael Blankenship · June 22nd, 2000 · Power of One
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The Tri-State Leather Contest last November did more than just start an annual leather fetish event in our area. It started Mike Taylor on a journey that will lead him throughout the world as International Mr. Leather 2000. Taylor won the local contest, and the subsequent Mr. Heartland Leather title in Columbus, qualifying him for the IML contest in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend. His victory in Chicago was not just a surprise to him, but to many who expect such events to be nothing more than a leather/muscle beauty contest.

"Boys my size don't win these things!" Taylor muses, still surprised at his title. Taylor is definitely a big man, at 6 foot, 200 some odd pounds, and of considerable girth. But his heart and commitment to the leather tribe are even bigger, a fact not lost on those he meets and talks with. His outgoing personality, personal candor and ability to articulate his views obviously set him apart from those who see leather as a series of macho poses.

He has been into the leather scene for over 15 years, since his college days at Notre Dame and a fateful trip to the Gold Coast bar in Chicago. He has attended many leather events in Chicago, San Francisco and Boston, and rattles off the first names of various leather figures like members of his own family, which is pretty much what he considers them to be. "If the general rule is six degrees of separation," he says, "in leather it's not more than one or two."

Taylor identifies the different levels of participation in leather circles. "There are different degrees to which people become involved," he says. "The first group is very tightly knit, because you help each other out all the time. The second is on the fringes of leather, which is where our greatest potential lies. They're the next generation of leather community leaders."

One of the greatest areas of that potential is the growing pansexuality of the leather/s&m/b&d world, away from its stereotypical identification with gay men. "It's become much more visible over the past 10 years," he says. "And some of the greatest contributors are women." He says the influence of women and straight men has blurred the lines of what was a much more rigid culture of prescribed gay-identified roles, such as daddy/ boy, top/bottom, etc. "Now it's a much more free-flowing community."

He sees the role of leather in the broader society as educational, reaching out to people looking to explore themselves, and thereby eliminating the fear that some people have of the leather-clad image.

"When you choose to step out of the mainstream, you learn to reach towards others who want to do that as well. Education and knowledge reduce fear, and helps people play in a safe, sane, consensual manner," he says, citing the three-word leather mantra. He adds, "We've gotta know how to do this stuff right."

He points out that in the gay community, "leather has always been a bit on the edge and as such scares some people, but it's also served as a leadership community, as some of the first people who decide to act, such as in the AIDS crisis."

Taylor will be plenty active in the coming year. His predecessor traveled 40 out of the 52 weekends last year, and Taylor expects his schedule to be just as rigorous. But the energy and sheer joy he exudes at the prospect of meeting his brothers and sisters around the world are strong indications he's up to the job. His goals: "First of all, to keep being myself. Secondly, there's a sense of joy and family I want to leave people with. Thirdly, to reach out through education and community events to people who want to learn more about our culture ... and create a greater awareness of who the people are in leather." Finally, Taylor plans to do some major fund raising.

He will raise money for the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, which has been growing by leaps and bounds (no pun intended) in the past few years. He also hopes to initiate a "friendship fund" to build stronger ties within the leather community and bring more people from the fringe of leather into active circles.

On the educational front, Taylor, identifying himself as an AIDS survivor, sees great danger in the re-emergence of unsafe sex. "We've got to nip that in the bud," he says. His typical playful tone turns serious as he recounts the impact of the disease upon some of his closest leather brothers. He recalls the Chicago competition as an incredibly moving event, full of deep emotional bonding backstage. "So many of the personal stories had us all in tears," he says. "I was a river. I was the Shelley Winters of leather."

To reach people with his educational message, Taylor will utilize "fun, respect and responsibility." "Warm, outgoing people bring others to them," he says. "Treating others with respect, and demanding it for yourself, creates a much better dialogue. Acting responsibly in one's life means you'll achieve that respect."

Respect for leather men and women is something that even the gay community has been hesitant to give. In the effort to win over mainstream America, gay organizers too often have sought to sanitize the image presented to the media, most recently at the bungled Millennium March. Had march organizers enlisted and welcomed the help of the leather tribe, perhaps for security purposes, they might not now be scrambling to explain the disappearance of $1 million from march and festival coffers.

Taylor thinks the leather tribe has much to offer in the area of community leadership. "especially because of our national connections, and because our politics are not necessarily just about leather, but issues that affect all constituencies, from GLBT to straight folks as well, in terms of being comfortable with yourself, and (the right to) safe, sane, consensual behavior." He says, as with any family, "Yes, there will be fights and disagreements, but in the end you remain one people."

Finally, in another example of cosmic irony, it may be noted that Taylor, a marketing executive at P&G, won his title the very week that the consumer products giant dropped its sponsorship of Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Though delighted at the coincidence, he points out that the company's decision was driven purely by business, though he admits that his co-workers have been most supportive, and quite curious about the new leather celebrity in their midst. "They've been supportive of me, as they have for other gay people, and that's driven by their respect for the individual." Taylor made no attempt to hide his out-of-office activities at work, either before or after his win in Chicago. "As a gay man, my daily life provides education. Because when you give people the opportunity to understand you as a complete person, that's a positive experience for both people."

So maybe Mike Taylor can get P&G's Mr. Clean as a sponsor for next year's Tri-State Leather Contest in Cincinnati. I personally think that the hunky, bald-headed guy with the earring would look great in a harness and biker chaps. Don't you?

To learn more about leather events, male and female, write to Mike Taylor, International Mr. Leather, at P.O. Box 8414, Cincinnati, OH 45208 or log on at www.imrl.com

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