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IML is an annual leather convention in Chicago that coincides with Memorial Day. Thirty-five years ago it was a bar contest: organizers put out brochures asking people to come, and 400 showed up. This year an estimated 18,000-20,000 leather folks made the trip, turning IML into one of the largest annual conventions in the city. This year's schedule started Wednesday and was full of events like Woof Camp (limited to "pups" and "handlers"), the People of Color Leather Caucus, and the Leather Market—with a ton of vendors like "Gear Essentials" and "Marvelous Mayhem." I wasn't at the Vic to participate in any of those events; I wanted to see who was going to win the coveted title of Mr. International Leather 2013.
The Vic crowd was affectionate and friendly with each other—IML is like a reunion for the leather community, and I'm sure many of the men had "networked" with each other in the past. The competition—just like a Miss America pageant, but with men in leather thongs talking about fisting—is actually really involved. Over the weekend the panel of judges, including Lolita Wolf and Nitro (Needs Intense Torture to Reach Orgasm), scored the contestants on a scale of 0 to 120. They judged them on their physique and personality and leather/kink awareness.
During Saturday's Pecs and Personality portion, the contestants wore leather gear as this year's emcee, Lenny Broberg (IML winner 1992), asked them each a question based on a questionnaire they'd previously completed—e.g., which things they're passionate about, with answers like "family" and activism," and their kinks, a long list that included some favorites, like bondage and water sports, and some I'd never heard of, like fire play and violet wands. Broberg had Anderson Cooper good looks with a Kathy Griffin personality, so was perfect for questions like "Describe your ideal dungeon scene using only psychology terms."
Pecs and Personality lasted about three hours. Some of the men were charming and witty and I can't believe contestant 17 said he was a beautiful butterfly. Their out-of-leather passions were varied and real, but of course I had my favorites* and really, contestant 33, you can't possibly think your pedestrian food analogy is gonna impress the judges.
At the Harris Theater on Saturday night, 20 finalists were announced and the top three chosen—the victor was a contestant I had in my top ten but didn't pick to win. And IML founder Chuck Renslow addressed the crowd: "IML is many things to different people," he said. Renslow was in a wheelchair—pushed by his "boy, lover, and partner"—and strapped to an oxygen tank. He told the crowd he'd undergone triple bypass surgery last February. "At the core it's a contest to select a companion, a leader who best represents all that is leather with its rich tradition of honor and service. For others it's an amazing weekend . . . and yes, I heard there is a lot of sex going on."
The Harris Theater was packed with leather daddies, cubs, and doms and subs. At first glance, the crowd probably doesn't look like the theater's usual crowd, but at IML a first glance is just a start—you have to hold it a little longer for it to mean anything. If you asked any casual participant in IML they'd probably say it's about sex. Don't get me wrong: the convention is about sex—and from what some people told me, dirty, raunchy sex—but the way these leather folks express their sexuality and form bonds makes the event, for those who want it, about something more. IML is about community.
A lot of these men and contestants in the Harris Theater are (in many, many ways) professionals: university professors, corporate vice presidents, accountants, attorneys. They're white-collar but prefer their sex with a leather collar. For some, IML is one of the only times they can be open about this part of their lives; Broberg said one of the contestants had recently been fired when an HR person found an online photo of him winning his local leather title.
"Who would have thunk?" Renslow said, citing the size of the crowd. "I shared this with you, because simply put: it matters. . . . More people come to this event to meet folks as well as to share a part of their lives. 'Networking,' if you will."
*For the record, seven of my top ten picks made it to the final 20 and two of these picks (including the winner) were in the top three.