Being International Mr. Leather wasn't only fun and games--but too often that's all it was.
By Justin Hayford
The lights go out in the colossal, crumbling Congress Theater. Members of the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, dressed up for the occasion in leather attire, shuffle into place on the darkened stage. In the auditorium some 3,000 leathermen, the genuine articles, settle in their seats. It's the opening of the 20th anniversary International Mr. Leather competition, the biggest event in leatherdom. Thousands of man-hours have gone into preparing for this moment: the debut of the official leather anthem.
The theater falls silent. You can smell the anticipation in the air--or maybe that's just several tons of tanned hide. For a full minute the stage remains dark. The chorus members stare at their sheet music. The leathermen wait. And wait. No one ever accused the competition of running like clockwork.
Finally three men in red leather military uniforms arrive center stage. The lights come up, and an offstage synthesizer begins to pound out a vaguely Germanic march. The uniformed leatherman in the middle begins to sing in a robust baritone.
One common heartbeat. / One leather nation. / We're growing stronger day by daaaaaayyyyyyy...
If this is the leather world's "God Save the King," that king is sitting a few feet from the lip of the stage. He's Kevin Cwayna, International Mr. Leather 1997, hunkered down at the judge's table, preparing to surrender his crown. Kevin doesn't have much to do; the 15 hours of prejudging over the past two days was the real work. Tonight he'll be staring at 62 hunks for four hours, judging them on physique, personality, and "leather image." Being king has its perks.
Care for your brother / Now, while he's living. / These bonds were formed when time began...
One year ago tonight, I watched Kevin--my old college buddy, weekend dancing partner, and mentor in hedonism--win this contest. His trek to the championship became a Reader feature. When his name was announced as the winner, he stumbled about the stage in an endearing daze. "It was pretty much an out-of-body experience," he says. He received a slew of prizes, some cash, and, in his words, "the hugest black dildo I've ever seen in my life. It was like a floor lamp. It was all I could do to unwrap it and leave it where it was."
He also inherited the charge to represent the leather world for the ensuing year in any way he wanted. "Immediately my whole year changed," he says. "I wanted to hit the national press. I wanted to do some political bridge building. I thought, 'There are so many possibilities. This will be fun.'"
Pass the torch, light his future, / Give him all you can give. / We're his family; alone he's just one man.
Kevin's first official appearance as International Mr. Leather was last June at Fulsom Street East, New York's takeoff on the legendary San Francisco outdoor leather fair. He stepped up to the microphone on the makeshift stage, ready to address some of the burning political and social issues that affect the leather community: homophobia, right-wing zealotry, animosity from the mainstream gay community. "Hi, all!" he began, and immediately his mike went dead. And stayed dead. No political bridge building that day.
That night he appeared at the convention Leather Pride New York, but didn't get a chance to say much there either. "I spent the evening auctioning off strange leather donations to an auditorium of freaks," he laughs.
Then it was off to the International Ms. Leather contest in San Diego. "That was where I first encountered female leather daddies with dildos in their pants. And these were lesbians, mind you. I had to judge the sexiness of their fantasies, being an expert in that area. It was the year of Xena: Warrior Princess."
Then he jetted off to Amsterdam for the Mr. Holland contest, where he was both judge and emcee. But despite increased microphone time, delivering his message was uniquely challenging. "It was a little overwhelming because, you know, they speak Dutch, just for starters. And I ragged on their church bells, which ring all the damn time. I thought it was funny. Apparently they love their church bells. It was a nightmare."
From there, Kevin says, the contests and appearances "get blurry, because they started coming fast and furious." He would arrive home from his full-time job--he's a physician who writes standard-of-care guidelines--to find 15 phone calls and 25 E-mails. "They were from people asking if I could come to this event, or judge this contest. I just wanted to crawl into a hole." Instead he hired someone to sit in his house three days a week and answer the phone.
His fame began to spread, much to his chagrin. "Fame is annoying," he laments. "I was walking around in Germany at a train station, not wearing any sort of identifying leather, there was no leather event going on, and people stopped me and said, 'You! You're International Mr. Leather!' And I thought, damn, I can't hide anywhere.
"And they come up to me and tell me they love me, and I don't know them. What do I say? 'I love you, too?'
"So I leave the train station and go to this gay bookstore, and I'm in all these magazines, none of which had bothered to call me or get my opinions about anything. But there I am in three issues of Toy magazine. And suddenly there's this new me that's been created, but it's not attached to the real me. He's just out there traveling somewhere. And occasionally I bump into him, which is always startling, and I think, 'I wonder what I've been doing.'"
Within a few months Kevin knew he had neither the time nor the know-how to get himself into the national mainstream press. So he turned his attention to the gay press, hoping to do some much-needed outreach. "There's a lot of embarrassment and shame in the mainstream gay community about the leather community," he says. "They don't like leather folk like they don't like drag folk. They're worried that we're going to shake up their image, or we may mess up their plan to achieve rights because we're too much of a lightning rod for right-wing criticism.
"And it's true, we may be that lightning rod, but no one looks at what's wonderful about the leather community. They don't say the leather community has such an interesting sense of family. The mainstream gay community is so locked into achieving legalized marriage based on a heterosexual model. But there are so many family arrangements and freedoms in the leather community that the gay community hasn't even thought about. We present no specific model of family but offer the freedom to pursue what you want. And chances are good we'll support it, unless we see some obvious abuse going on. But if you want a daddy-boy relationship, go for it. If you want to have a threesome family, build it.
"I have this vision of the mainstream gay community saying, 'Oh, the leather community, they're very inspiring. They've got some real talents and gifts that we may be able to benefit from.'"
But it seemed the mainstream gay press wasn't terribly interested in Kevin's vision. The Advocate called requesting an interview but never called back. Out ran his picture without his name and without talking to him.
He had almost no time to talk to media people anyway. "What happens is, you get all these requests to come to all these events around the country. And you go because they're wonderful trips and wonderful opportunities to meet people--and that becomes your whole year. There were two-month stints when I had one weekend off. Your life becomes standing around in dark bars talking to strangers.
"And I would say a few words at contests, preaching to the choir. But I wanted to be on the Today show."
In case that Today show invitation ever showed up, he knew he had to be ready to address one important question: is leather sex unhealthy and destructive? "It's a question all tied up with AIDS shame. You can just hear it. 'They did that fucked-up stuff to each other, and they killed each other. They spun their own web.' But I knew that as the spokesperson, if I was going to do publicity work, that was the shit I had to know how to talk about."
So he interviewed sex therapists at the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota. "I wanted to know what the mainstream sexual mental health establishment thought of leather sex," he explains. "I thought that perhaps they could teach me to identify points of pathology. But it's my impression that they have no unified view on this stuff, that it's still uncharted territory. So what they do, which I think is irresponsible, is just extrapolate from their other perspectives on sexual health. There was a lot of goofy talk about, 'Well, some of that leather sex play is OK as long as that's not all they do. As long as they have a balanced sex life. As long as they can come back to "regular sex." If they can somehow return from where they were headed, then it was a safe journey.'"
For Kevin, that line of reasoning echoes homophobic tenets the gay community has worked hard to overcome. "It's not much different from saying it's OK to fool around with guys now and then, if you're drunk or a teenager or something, so long as you come back to heterosexuality. Then you get the experts' endorsement.
"And all their talk of pathology is based on nothing. Where are the studies that show it's harmful? I mean, I dated somebody who couldn't get off unless he was tied up. He was hardwired that way. Now, is that really sick? My evaluation would be, does it hurt him in other ways? Is it interfering with his ability to get untied and go to work? Where is the pathology other than being different?"
As the year went on, Kevin found the leather world to be more and more surreal. "I mean, the planning that goes into these events--they're bigger than society weddings. When I was standing on that stage after I won the title, I had my hands full of invitations for contests that were happening nine, ten months in the future. And the invitations came with plane tickets and gifts. And you'd get there, and there would be gifts at the hotel, and logos and banners and publications. And the events themselves are this party after that get-together. And I was like, what is going on? Why all this energy? What are we trying to do?
"I thought about that all year long. I mean, I know that it's because the boys like to get laid, and you like to get together with your friends, and it's fun to put people onstage and have them expose themselves, and it's fun to pick a leader. But there's something else going on here, on a sociological level.
"Why do people devote so much energy to these contests? Because there is no Leather City. We've seen the same kind of energy dissipate over the years in the mainstream gay community because gay worlds have become more real. There are gay neighborhoods, gay businesses, gay coffeehouses. You can live in a gay world where you are normalized and validated.
"Leather people don't have a neighborhood. We have a 'community,' which is hard to define and also very new. I don't think we talked about ourselves as a community 15 years ago. Clubs started 25 years ago, which was the formation of family. Contests started 20 years ago, which was the beginning of our celebrations. Writing about leather culture started 15 years ago, our flag appeared 5 years ago, and 2 years ago we opened the Leather Archives. So we're a community, but there's something bigger that we imagine at these contests. I'm not sure yet what it is.
"But for some reason, in trying to create these weekend leather worlds, I'm an important fixture. Like really important. I would say that this year people spent about $40,000 on me, to get me where they wanted to get me and house me and make sure I was standing in the right place at the right time. And I would look at myself and think, 'I don't really do too much.' That's why I was insecure all year. I can flirt, maybe make some people smile, but goddamn, who am I? Am I an example of what people should aspire to? How would anyone know?
"I guess I'm royalty. I don't have to do anything but be a symbol. It was hard to realize that sometimes all they wanted me to do was sit there and look pretty for three days. And they paid a lot of money for that. But how important is it what the queen has to say, anyway?"
The leather anthem ends with an explosive ovation from the crowd. Over the next three and a half hours, the energy in the auditorium never wanes. The crowd is particularly supportive of the physique competition, when armor-plated bodies parade across the stage. Then it's time for Kevin to make his farewell speech. For once he's got everyone's attention and full leave to speak.
He steps onstage to a standing ovation, microphone already poised. He seems to know this is his big moment, even though he's only got a minute or two. He wants to make sure no one misses it. "Can somebody go get those people in the lobby?" he jokes.
"You guys sent me on a whirlwind tour of the leather world," he begins. "And I thank you for that." He talks about all the energy he's seen expended on contests around the globe, and how he didn't understand it. "So I called Joe Gallagher [International Mr. Leather 1996] and asked him, 'What are we supposed to learn here? There has to be some larger meaning.' And he said, 'Kevin, you just need a big dick up your ass.' And he was right. The next morning I saw things much clearer.
"Sure, we can say we're a people, a clan, a tribe, a community. But I think, suddenly--we're a nation. Remember sociology class? Remember what makes up a nation? We have our celebrations, our rituals, our symbols, our flag, our anthem." The crowd bursts into applause. "So we qualify, all right? And this"--he makes a sweeping gesture across the crowd--"this is the vision of our nation. When you come here you don't have to hide anything. You can be who you really are. Eventually, this will be every day. We're going to have a leather nation. I've already seen it. So believe me."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kevin Cwayna photo by Lloyd DeGrane.