In Chicago, IML is something almost everyone knows. The abbreviation stands for International Mister Leather, and it’s a contest that is in its 35th year. What started as an event in the Gold Coast bar in the 1970s has become one of the biggest private conventions to hit the Windy City each year. It fills hotels on Michigan Avenue and brings thousands of leathermen, leatherwomen and their admirers to town — and that is big business.
This year, I have the honor of being a judge at the event, and so this week, my partner and I board the Amtrak Texas Eagle for a trip to Chicago and a five-day flurry of events that make up the contest. It should be a lot of fun and for me, a lot of work. Still, spending time interviewing 50-plus hot leathermen from around the world is something I can suffer through.
What is interesting to me is the place IML holds in Chicago. It is an event that is recognized by almost everyone in the city, and it has become part of Chicago’s culture and character. In Chicago the yearly arrival of thousands of leatherman and leatherwomen is something seen as part of the city’s character. It wouldn’t be spring in Chicago without it!
Though it was never intended as something with a political purpose, by its sheer size and visibility it has become a significant part of the struggle for equality. Now, before you go dismissing this as hyperbole, let me explain.
Back in the 1980 when Dallas held its second Gay Pride Parade a lot of people came to watch and gawk. The community organizers had hoped that this event, only the second since 1972, would get noticed, and they wanted to put on a good face. There was much discussion whether drag queens and leather folk would be appropriate in the parade, since it was pretty much a given that the press would concentrate on these colorful images.
Though leather was not very visible that landmark year, in later years the presence of leathermen and women has become a staple of the parade, along with a barrage of fabulous drag queens and lots of attractive men and women in various states of undress.
The old idea of trying to make the LGBT community look just the same as the rest of the world is no longer an issue. Sure, most of us fit in to the fabric of our city and don’t draw attention, but some of us still take pride in our differences. That diversity is what gives our community a culture and identity. The visibility of that diversity is what has helped the broader community understand and embrace us.
The act of visibility is a political act. Being out, being different and being unashamed to hide is a political act. Because of that visibility, the people of Dallas have come to understand that everyone is not the same. Though that seems to be self-evident, believe me it is not. Growing up in the segregated Dallas of the 1950s, I used to think everyone was white. There was a whole city within a city that was invisible. Now I find it disturbing to be in an environment without people of all races. Diversity just feels better to me and that’s why visibility is so important.
So as the train pulls into Chicago, and I go to join my leather brothers and sisters for the weekend, I wish everyone in Dallas the best. This week is the anniversary of Harvey Milk’s birthday and a great time to make yourself visible. It’s a political act almost as profound as voting.