Friday, August 17, 2012

Leather Titles

I have mixed feelings about leather titles. I think those best served by leather titles are the title holders and contestants themselves. Running for a contest can be a huge confidence boost for the men and women who choose to compete. It takes guts to expose yourself on stage. For most, running for a title is a positive experience. In fact, more than half of those who have participated in a contest have competed in more than one. 69% of participants who have competed in a contest report that they have won at least one contest. If at first you don't succeed...

My husband is a title holder for this current year and winning has been an amazing experience for him. He's met people from across the country and made some lasting friendships. He also shows a comfort working a crowd that he never had before. This boost alone has increased his confidence at work and at home. He has kept his goals modest, simply to promote his bar and increase awareness of the leather community.

Unfortunately titles can also have a darker side to them. Winning can bring out the worst qualities in some people. It can also give false authority to a winner, allowing him or her to pass on bad or destructive information to new members of the community. Living under a microscope is a stressful experience, and this can push some to do negative things.

Over two-thirds of the community have attended a leather title contest at least once. They take all shapes and sizes from a small bar contest to major events like MAL and IML. At the end of the day, the structure is basically the same. I'm beginning with the process by which a title holder is selected since 25% of survey participants were unfamiliar with how contests work. There are differences between some circuits, but most are structured something like this.

Each contestant is interviewed by the panel of judges. This is the highest scoring portion of the contest and often the reason why a "crowd favorite" may not win once the contest moves to the stage. Interviews have a time limit, but beyond that they are free form. Judges can ask whatever they want.

Bar Wear
This is the first portion of a contest that is on stage. Contestants wear something they might wear out to the bar.

Jock Strap
For many, this is the most popular portion of the contest. It's an opportunity for the audience to check out their contestants' bodies. It's also a great time to observe the contestants' confidence. Title holders find themselves in many unusual situations, and showing off their body is just one of many things they might have to do.

Formal Leather
This the portion where the audience sees the contestants in head to toe leather. Does their leather fit properly? Do they remember to take off their cover? Do they take it off correctly? Are their accessories flagged correctly? This portion really separates the seasoned leather man or woman from someone who participated last minute and borrowed everything the day before. All of this being said, a mistake here or there isn't going to destroy someone's chances, but it's fun to critique from the audience.

Speech or Question
While in formal leather the contestants are either asked to give a short speech or answer a question posed to them by the judges. Sometimes they have the question in advance, other times they are surprised. These can be serious or silly.

So there you have it, the basics of a leather contest system. Scores from each category are tallied by the tally master. Larger contests sometime use Olympic scoring. Some contest circuits have additions like a fantasy portion where the contestant plays out a fantasy on stage. There are other differences as well, but the system above is the basic setup.

As you can see above, only 33% of survey participants feel that the system we use is the best way. 25% are unfamiliar, and a staggering 42% say "NO." So where are the possible opportunities for improvement?

I've been a judge for one contest, tally master for two contests, and judges boy for three. I've had the opportunity to be a part of the process from start to finish for five contests, and I've seen recurring issues with each one.

  1. Inconsistent Scrutiny: I've seen judges grill one contestant and "lead" the next to a better answer. I've seen contestants be asked very difficult questions on stage while the next is asked a silly one. This is a major problem because each contestant is getting a different "test" and they are not all at the same difficulty level. When I interview job applicants at work I use a list of pre-determined questions as a starting point. I follow up as necessary, but I feel it's the only way to level the playing field.
  2. Physical Attraction: How someone looks is important, but how someone looks in a jock is a difficult thing to judge objectively. It's also an issue at the interview stage. I've seen judges go easier on an attractive contestant and be harsh to one that is less attractive.
  3. The Scoring System: Judging is hard. You are rushed to make decisions that people will love or hate you for. You also don't have much time to decide. Being given a bank of 45 possible points in one category and 10 contestants can make it difficult to be consistent. 

As I've indicated above, there are different title circuits. Each one is different, and each one emphasizes different elements of the community. I've broken it down into two basic types. It goes without saying that there are more than two types alone, but most fit into one of these two categories.

Role Specific Contests
These contests judge their contestants by a specific role (ie. Leather SIR, Leather boy, Leather Woman, puppy, bootblack, ect). What's interesting about these contests is that they take something subjective and try to cram it into a box. You can never please everyone, we all have different opinions about protocol and how these roles should behave. Each winner has to do their best to represent their role fairly.

General Mr. /Ms. Contests
Most commonly, these are the "Mr. YOUR-LEATHER-BAR-HERE" contests. Roles aren't directly considered in these contests, but a submissive competing for this title better show confidence and poise on stage. These title holders are spokesmen and women for their bars, their city, and their region. In less urban areas they are also a rep for the leather community at their "leather friendly" bar.

As you can see above, the majority of participants think all types of contests play similar roles. Of those that with an opinion, more favor role specific contests. Prior to this survey I agreed with the latter. I've always felt that someone that poorly represents their role has a year to spread their opinions to newer members of the community irreparably imprinting them with bad information. Fortunately, this does not seem to be the case.

Every contest has it's talking points which go something like this.  "Something something OLD GUARD, something something NEW GUARD, COMUNITY, YOUNG PEOPLE, UNITY." A friend affectionately calls this "Leather Contest Bingo," meaning that you'll hear key words many times over the course of the process. Leather title holders usually fall into two camps for the goals of their title year. The first camp wants to promote their bar and the community to the best of their ability. The second has a more ambitious goals like "bringing new people into the community," "unifying the leather and the non-leather communities," "HIV awareness," "drug use prevention," and so on and so on. These are all respectable goals, but as we can see they aren't particularly successful. I must note that we only had four survey participants who were under 20, so that data is a little skewed. An average of 20% of participants attribute their community involvement to a specific title holder. Fewer than half of participants feel that a title holder has enhanced their knowledge of history and traditions of the community. Opinions about community talking points were also in a low minority. I don't believe title holders are failing, the majority are doing what they are meant to do. Helping to draw crowds to events, helping with fundraising, and promoting their bar/region. It's in the loftier goals that often fall short. 

53% of those going to large contests like MAL and IML don't attend the contests. 27% used to but don't any more. While I think contests are over emphasized, they do play a role in our community. A significant portion of us are engaged by contests and feel a sense of connection when they meet a title holder. 

Going forward, I'm going to start including unedited comments from the surveys at the end of each data breakout, I will remove anything that identifies the individual. I am also going to select one that resinates with me to highlight. For this survey I agreed most with the following comment.
"I think the inordinate amount of money, time and resources we spend on contests takes away from much of the other possible events and projects we could be doing."
Our community is like a dysfunctional family. We don't all agree, but we're all we have. Toughening up and standing together despite differences of opinion is much better than standing alone. I'm just not sure that contests make the best focal points of our gatherings. 

A link to the unedited data is included after the comments.

Titles should not be beauty pageants and I don't feel like mine was, I am Mr Compound Leather (a bar title here in Denver).  I was given the title based on my ongoing 15 year involvement in the community and my desire to further our community.  I think too often titles are seen as beauty pageants.  Some of them are but selecting ambassadors for our community is an important part of our culture.  These guys who chase titles and have multiple sashes , I question their motives.
I think these events are irrelevant and an embarrassment.
The events are a sideline to bring us together. The next way we come together is classes and workshops and demos.  But the reason for all of these is PLAY, and that must always be at the forefront of anything else we do. Sanitizing via titles is wrong and not what I look for in title events or title holders.
I think the questionnaire makes a mistake by lumping all titles and titleholders together.  IML (and perhaps MAL) are so big they have the aspect of tribal rituality, the group affirmation of shared values and practices, e.g. masculinity, male beauty, sex-positivity, "out"-ness.  Most other contests, for instance M/s contests, don't manage to partake of that same sense of communal experience.
And to say "titleholder" without differentiating between Mr Gay Naturist and someone like Guy Baldwin, whose IML title is 23 years old and whose prominence comes from work having little to do with the title -- this is going to generate responses that have nothing to do with each other.
It seems to me that title holders play less of a role in political activism in the Leather-SM community, at least compared to what it was like in the early 90s.  I don't think that's necessarily a good thing, when issues like violence against LGBTs, anti-gay marriage initiatives, Internet censorship and survelliance and other political issues are at the forefront of national debate.  Leatherfolk have been marginalized from the LGBT political conversation particularly and title holders could play a greater role in that area. 
I admire (some) of the people who run for titles.  Personally, I'm not exactly sure of the motivation; it's not an urge that I've had.  And, I'm in a leather family where several of My subs have been titleholders.
I don't like your age categories - very nasty to include everyone over 59 in one group while you use groups of 10 for the other age ranges. 
Suggest you give honor and respect to all age categories - otherwise - you are perpetuating the bias on the young - the baby boomers are in their 60's and life expentancy is increasing:
60 - 69
70 - 79
80 - 89
90 - 99
I do wish there were more contests to represent the other fringes of the community. Like contests just for puppies and trainers, contests for true mentors, a title for ageplayers in the community. 
Members of my community told me it was time for me to run for Southeast Drummerboy. I had a longtime very close relationship with the Atlanta Eagle so I decided I would run for Mr. Atlanta Eagle first to see if I had what it took to be a titleholder. When I won Mr. Eagle, people I deeply respected told me I was going to IML 2000. I resisted. I was a boy and not good looking enough. I gave in and it turned out to be one of the transformational experiences of my life! I can't easily describe all that it did for me. After that, I won SE Drummerboy. That, too, was an amazing experience. For better and occasionally worse, celebrity is a powerful force in modern America. A title is a way to leverage the power of celebrity to do all kinds of good things. However, a title holder needs to always remember that they simply wear the title they are NOT the title. The dark side of celebrity and the title system is the risk of getting drunk on ego. A humble title holder can be a great asset for his community.
I think the inordinate amount of money, time and resources we spend on contests takes away from much of the other possible events and projects we could be doing.
Titles are a great way to make a difference in any aspect of our community, wether it is goal specific or through mentoring new leather folk.
Unfortunately, I have seen Leather Contests become Mr. Beautiful-Hot-Man-that-today-is-the-first-time-I-see-you-wearing-leather-ever-in-this-bar, rather than a community leader picking event. My personal experience is that it is all about the looks and not about your work background and how involved you currently are with the community. As a proof, I stopped going to the bars the night of the contest because the producers had to pick out people from the crowd in order to have enough guys pretending to be running for the title. Very sad to watch and discouraging.
There are too many titles...keep them specific: Leather, Puppy, Rubber, SIR/boy/Woman, Bootblack... the smaller "bar/club" ones should feed into regional contests...that feed into the international...small bar/club contests should not feed into international contests. There are just too many title holders out there that probably won't have won it b/c there are so many. So many devalues the honor of the title at larger events. The movie Incredibles said it best "Lets make everyone super, so no one is" should not be the basis for kink/fetish/leather titles.
I think Leather Contests take the silliest aspects of Beauty Contests and make them even sillier.
I actually think the whole title/contest thing is a bit silly. 
I find that leather tittle holders give voice to a community that was ignored and ostracized for many years. Leather, Rubber and other fetishes are being recognized more and more because of contests and the large affect, both in numbers of people and in the money they bring to a city.
I find that leather tittle holders give voice to a community that was ignored and ostracized for many years. Leather, Rubber and other fetishes are being recognized more and more because of contests and the large affect, both in numbers of people and in the money they bring to a city.
Everyone knows leather titles are too superficial (like beauty pageants), are rife with favoritism, and are very often determined based on the geographic location of contestants.
Isn't this survey a bit too US oriented? Maybe in Europe we don't need leather contests to be told about leather events, or Hiv etc
I think title contests are just an excuse to hold an event.  It would be harder to organize something as big as IML or even MIR without something to say "this is the party and if you're deciding between events you should come to this one."
Leather titles are something I have never witness but do hope to sometime soon, in Ireland we yet have to have a title competition for fetish men but are slowly making progress in a constructive way so possibly maybe next year will have a title for Irelands finest fetishmen. 
I think having options for each club/bar  title is good, but I don't think having multiple title holders per year is so good.  It is more difficult to support >1 title holder in a year.  contests can be a galvanizing event when produced well.
good survey, thanks!
Contests seem to have a different significance in the US (and to some degree Continental Europe) than in the UK, there's much fewer in the UK and they don't seem to be such a popular/recurrent thing as in the US
While contests are entertaining and a lot of events are centered around them, I find that people take titles and title holders too seriously. Yes, some title holders step up and become active leaders in the community, but I feel that most community leaders who hold/held a title were already leaders beforehand.
Also, there are a good number of past and present title holders who do nothing for the community, walk around with an air of self importance and inflated egos, and are more about ""what can you do for me"" as opposed to "how can I give back".
Like most things in our community, I find that people take titles way too seriously. They are fun, entertaining, and a big part of our community. But not the end all, be all of what makes us Leathermen (and Leatherwomen).
just like beauty contests, these are antiquated and ridiculous,,, 
I was very shy guy, running for a title broke me of that, when you have to walk out on stage in a jockstrap, you learn to be free.   Hold your head High and never look back,  I love my leather family.
Its encouraging to see the use of current technology to enhance the leather culture. 
Instead of getting lost in the exclusivity, we need to be inclusive with like minded people and not get lost in arguments about "old guard" and traditions at the expense of where we are heading and the new generations thoughts.