Get out your shoeshine and your flogger — Memorial Day weekend means it’s time again for International Mr. Leather in Chicago. The multi-day event is approaching its 37th year, and this month marks the anniversary of its founding way back in 1979.
These days, you might know IML as the focal point of leather and kink. For about a week at the end of May, tough-looking men gather all over Chicago to swap stories and sexual encounters, to network and see old friends, and to embark on adventures with each other and their bodies. The culmination of the event, of course, is the International Mr. Leather contest, where a representative is chosen to exemplify the community over the next twelve months.
But how did it get started? That depends who you ask, and how far back you want to go.
By some accounts, the first leather bar contest was in 1972, at Phoebe’s in San Diego. It was the bar’s tenth anniversary, but apparently the logistics of leather contests weren’t quite as well-established then as they are now: They held another contest the next year, and the same guy won. They stopped holding them after that.
What we know today as IML got it start in 1979, when Chuck Renslow founded the contest at a place called Gold Coast Leather Bar in Chicago. This time, the idea took off, and soon grew to the point that they needed to hold it in a hotel.
At the same time, additional titles were founded in California: Now called LeatherSIR and Leatherboy, they were then named for erotic publications International Mr. Drummer and International Drummerboy.
In 1993, the competition added a new component: International Mr. Bootblack. Judges are given passes to receive a shine during the weekend by the contestants, generally serving anyone who needs a shine over three days. For its first five years, the contest was open to both men and women, but that put women at a disadvantage since most of the attendees at IML are men. The female side of the competition broke off in 1998 and moved to the International Ms. Leather contests.
Since then, the bootblacking contest has gotten larger and larger. It now includes various hotel parties, a silent auction, live music, and various fundraisers.
These contests have never been purely about looks and sex — although that’s certainly a major component. They’re also about supporting the community, with proceeds going to a wide variety of charitable organizations. Contestants in the Mr. Leather contest are expected to establish a platform of advocacy and activism, and to use their title to better the lives of others. Winners will have to do a lot of traveling, visiting various contests around the country to support their endeavors.
Now that IML is coming up on its 40th year, it’s an appropriate time to consider the competition’s legacy and how its benefits might continue into the future. That’s why the event organizers, the Leather Archives and Museum, have placed IML in a trust. As of 2009, all of the proceeds from IML will to towards supporting the museum and preserving leather history — so the experience of having a leather paradise in downtown Chicago can continue year after year.
(Featured image via Colin Davis/Flickr)