About the author:
Jack Holroyde is the President of London Leathermen and a former holder of the Mr Leather UK title. He’s been involved in activism and community building in the LGBT+ community since he was a teenager, and is passionate about offering safe spaces for everyone regardless of background, ability or affiliation.
This post builds on a previous post, linked here where we explored some of the issues around the ongoing Mr Leather UK contest and our principles and subsequent policy around the title. It would make useful reading ahead of this ‘white paper’ style thought piece to provide context for why we feel this conversation needs to be had now and put to bed once and for all.
Purpose of this post
I’ve long been of the opinion that titles could be a force for good within the scene. I wouldn’t have run (and won!) Mr Leather UK if I didn’t think this. But I do believe that the current title situation is one we have sleepwalked into. The titles began as a marketing opportunity for bars and clubs and since the creation of ‘Mr Leather UK CIC Ltd’ have morphed into a vague ‘ambassadorial’ role for the entire country in a way that’s great on paper but doesn’t stand up to the rigours of real life.
It’s easy to criticise, and many people have. We all know the flaws of the system. But we need to think clearly about what those are, and start to work together constructively to produce something that brings value to the community. A useful way of thinking about complex problems is to go back to the first principle of the matter and build something from scratch. This approach allows us to start with a few key questions, and I will start by outlining these as I see them and do my best to provide some ideas for what a better contest could look like if we started from scratch.
This isn’t meant as a definitive set of answers. These thoughts are not edicts. At London Leathermen we make decisions not by managerial diktat but by the principle of substantial unanimity. In that spirit, we want to start a conversation and thrash out the fine detail as a community.
Disclaimers aside, lets ask ourselves:
- What is the purpose of a title contest as we see it today?
- What are we actually trying to achieve with this?
- How do we measure success?
- How successful are the current titles?
- What is good about the title contests as they stand and what needs to go?
- What does a title look like that matches all our principles?
(Measurement against those principles)
The History, and where this leaves us today
So lets start at purpose. As previously stated, the titles began as a marketing role using individual patrons as promotors for a club or venue. This is the reason in the US you might have ‘Mr Eagle Georgetown SC’ or ‘Mr. CC (of Palm Springs)’ or ‘Mr Drummer’.
In the UK, before the unpleasantness that led to todays status quo, we had Mr Hoist, Mr Leatherwest, Mr Leather UK to name a few. Just as everyone understands that Miss Universe isn’t actually open for any female identified being in the observable universe and shouldn’t be seen as a representative for the same, Mr Leather UK was run by MSC London – selected from its members to represent the clubs interests both within and without the scene. From 1988 to 2016 this was the case, and the clubs of the Fellowship of UK Clubs (FUKC) all had input and consented to this.
Sidenote: I agree on first principle that London should not be using a UK title to represent its own interests – there’s enough of that in the UK already. So I don’t advocate for a return to this – but I do feel it’s important to note that the current situation of Mr Leather UK being touted as a representative and ambassador for the whole UK leather scene is a new development only for the last 4 contests and titleholders under MLUK CIC Ltd.
So today we have a dichotomy, where a title model was built to be a cheap marketing ploy to use bare bodies and allure to make a quick buck for the bars – but with costs paid in full for the titleholder, no need for distance travel as the role was for the local bar only, and the sash afforded the opportunity to use the platform to take a stand on issues close to its holder’s heart. Now this same model is being used but where titleholder is expected to represent the interests of the entire scene within and without the scene at the titleholders own expense, financially, physically and emotionally.
We’re not here for this. On first principles, the model seems… icky. It’s just not how we do things in the UK leather scene.
Additionally, the titleholder is expected to travel the UK. To visit all the clubs multiple times, to understand all the issues of all the scene and be on both sides of every dispute. To grease the wheels of club communication. To be at every Pride no matter the cost. To be outward facing and get the world talking about the gay leather scene. To be in Europe showing off the UK leather scene to the other european clubs. To compete in Mr Leather Europe and IML. To raise money for charity and for their own travel expenses.
You can see in the winners of the contest how split we are on this question – it seems that every other year we have an activist sash queen who goes out into the world and makes a name for leather, and every alternate year we have a diplomat who goes to all the clubs and knows all the gossip but isn’t known outside the scene.
How it really is – the ugly reality of the status quo
So we have 3 roles to the current title: promotor, ambassador, diplomat. How is the title performing?
My personal experience of being a titleholder was that on the night all the contestants make some vague commitments, win the title (in my case, very unexpectedly!) and then be told ‘there are no rules, go bet he titleholder you want to be’.
Except it didn’t work like that. No matter what action I took, it seemed like 50% of the scene told me I should be ‘de-sashed’ for the smallest perceived slight or ‘disrespecting the sash’ and the other 50% told me that I was a role model for all humanity. By the time I handed back the sash. I despised it. I despised the para-social relationships where I had people I would love to know but couldn’t remember that I’d met before. A close friend first 4 introductions to me I said it was lovely to meet him and ‘I love your shirt!’. The same line, every time. People knew my outward persona, I didn’t have the capacity to get to know them and show them the real Jack.
And I’m not the only one. Our current title situation is chewing up and spitting out community minded people after filling up their credit card. with flights and hotels. Every Leather title holder since 2015 has had at least one attempt to de-sash’ them. The community is not of one mind and therefore one person cannot be expected to carry the values of our entire national scene.
The ambassador role is failing. We may succeed in getting press coverage, but at the tremendous cost to the titleholder.
The diplomacy role is an objective, laughable failure. Since the unfortunate events that surrounded the formation of MLUK CIC Ltd, the goodwill and cooperation of the clubs has been shattered by threats, lawsuits, trademarks and other acts of cultural vandalism in the scene. I say again – this is not how we deal with things in the leather scene. Our scene has existed since 1965 and has survived on the spirit of brotherhood and collaboration.
With lawsuits flying around, with clubs starting new titles and with half the scene opposed to elected ambassadors of any description, and the other half split about what messaging they should be putting out, we are creating more divisions, not fewer, in our scene.
Our titles aren’t fulfilling the job they set out to do.. I would argue the roles are not possible to live up to.
But if we zoom out a little we can ask: what are we trying to achieve?
1. Firstly, a title should be FUN.
The contest, the sash, the travel, the role. Talk to any titleholder and ask about their stress level around their title. Its a lot to bear. If it’s not fun, the only people going for it are the manically driven and the narcissist. We can do better than that.
2. We want to encourage positive behaviour.
As candidates lay out their platform we get a marketplace of ideas-where anyone with good (or terrible!) ideas can stand on a stage and say ‘this is who we should be’. And the crowd gets to decide who gets to roll with their idea.
Many people who don’t win titles go on to carry those messages in their local clubs and the change gets made. We want to encourage people from all walks of life to make positive changes in the scene to help us be an open, loving fraternity of Leather people.
3. We want to celebrate our history, heritage and shared culture.
We have so much to be proud of! One of the key arguments for MLUK it’s heritage – it’s been going since 1988. It’s a part of our history and would be a shame to lose it. However we have to find new ways of exploring the great men who came before us in the Leather Scene.
4. We want to Educate
We need to be able to communicate both to long term members, new faces, and LGBT+ (and straight) people outside our scene what the leather scene is about. What our shared values are and how we have lived those values in the past, now and how we plan to carry those values in the future. We have to target the never ending culture war that likes to make a talk-piece that ‘fetish people don’t belong at Pride’ when fetish men were at Pride before anyone else.
A proposal (of sorts)
So is there a better way to achieve these objectives?
I think there is. I have become sure that no amount of shrinking titles (such as making Mr leather England) or mentorship programmes (as promised last year by Mr Leather UK CIC Ltd) can fix what we have currently. We have to tear it down and build something new. So here’s some ideas about what models could offer the scene.
Lets be clear – nothing is more encouragement for leathermen to bring their A-Game and work a crowd then a ‘best in show’ contest. We all know how much the current contests come down to how hot someone is – why not embrace the kitsch camp fun of a leather pageant?
Where the winner is the Leathermen that served the best looks and world the crowd the best that night. This title has no expectations – you get a sash to keep and nobody expects you to wave from an open top carriage at your own expense – although you can if you want! You can go to the European title and have a blast. Everyone needs to be on board with this being exactly what it is – entertainment.
We envision this being partly judged (scorecards ready!) and partly audience voted.
But the best part is this: it doesn’t matter who wins as long as everyone has a giggle.
Of course this doesn’t fix the problem of exploring and celebrating new ideas. So we need to reach back into our history and elsewhere in the gay scene and bring back – the outstanding achievement concept.
This isn’t new, just look at the X awards – but it is missing something. It reminds me of the difference between military medal citations (which can be pages long, with minute detail around the actions taken and their tactical, strategic and individual impact on the ground) and the citation for political knighthoods that read as ‘for services to banking’.
If we wanted to get people to take actions that had a positive tactical, strategic and individual effect in the fetish scene, we need to be clear about what those actions were, and demonstrate how simple they are to take. We need to celebrate the actions – rather then venerate the person. Putting someone on a pedestal rarely ends well, and people who can’t step up and do things in the scene aren’t worth less than people who have that privilege.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t recognise the person at all- they would be taking home a trophy after all! But we must focus on the root of what we are trying to achieve – effecting positive behaviour change and empowering ‘ordinary’ leathermen, not club presidents, the most travelled or the ones with the most expensive gear.
Yet another title!
We also need to consider who is entering our contests. When was the last bootblack MLUK? I’ll wait. We need to offer the bootblacks – the great men who keep us looking shiny and conditioned an opportunity to show off their craft and educate leatherman on the magic they can work on gear thats a bit worse for wear!
The Bootblack Association of the British Isles has said they don’t want a full sash contest, but would be interested in a contest in the spirit of friendly competition where bootblacks work against the clock, with space for guys to watch and ask questions.
So we have an idea – a day of events where guys can strut their stuff on the runway, we can listen to our community’s greatest achievements and celebrate the great work being done – and champion both leather wearers and leather workers.
No expectations, no debt, no demands for de-sashing, no bullying, no resentment, no pressure. We can leave behind the terrible taste of the last few years and build something better that achieves what we need and that carries the spirit of London Leatherman- good vibes, community spirit and celebrating our heritage as Leatherman together.
We’re considering all the above and how it might add to the community. We’re seriously considering running something in October during London Leather Weekend as part of our big push to bring the weekend back to international prominence after so many years fallow.
I’d be glad to hear opinions – please drop me an email at president (at) londonleathermen.com or light me up at an event.
All the best,
President, London Leathermen