The arrival this week of ILSb is just 1 reason why Dallas has become a major leather scene
You can call Jack Duke the current standard-bearer for the Dallas leather community. He’ll even respond to chief cheerleader, honorary chairman, Godfather, or, because he’s Italian, capo di tutti capi.
But whatever you do, do not call him its “poster boy.”
“That’s poster Sir!” he’ll correct with a smile.
Ever since Duke won Mr. Dallas Eagle, then Mr. Texas Leather, and then came in third at the International Mr. Leather competition in Chicago, he’s been one of the major players in the Dallas leather scene. He confirmed that status last year, when he won the title of International Leather SIR 2012.
And unlike IML, which is based in Chicago and is held there every year, International Leather SIR/Boy’s host city can move. This weekend, it arrives in Dallas, meaning Duke is not only the reigning champ, but the de facto host of the international event.
It’s a major coup for the Dallas leather community, which has gained a growing reputation throughout the world in the last decade.
“Dallas is pretty respected [in the leather community] because of so many important leather figures on the international scene are from here,” Duke says. “Just think about it: In the last four years, Dallas [can claim] an IML winner, IMsL winner, an ILS winner and an ICBB winner.”
If that sounds like alphabet soup, it’s not all that confusing. IML (International Mr. Leather) is the granddaddy of the lot, with International Leather SIR being a close second in prestige. There’s also the female side, International Ms. Leather (IMsL), and a gender-neutral category, International Community Boot Black, which in 2010 went the Syr Evan, a Dallas woman.
Syr Evan joins Duke, Jeffrey Payne-Roy (who won IML in 2009 and is a co-owner of the Dallas Eagle) and Synn Evans (2012’s IMsL champ) in a quartet of prestigious titleholders. It can’t be a coincidence they are all from Dallas.
On the other hand, just because Texas is near the cows, doesn’t mean it has always been a leather powerhouse. IML started in 1979 with 12 contestants (it was followed in 1980 by the contest that became ILSb). In the early years of the leather scene, it wasn’t unusual to see San Francisco contestants on the dais at most ceremonies. Indeed, the first Dallas leatherman to appear at IML was in 1985 (though a Mr. Texas from Houston won in 1983).
Then, in 2002 — when IML was 66 contestants strong — Stephen Weber, then-reigning Mr. Texas Leather, took the title. Since then, it’s been a stead flow of victors. Payne-Roy followed as International Mr. Leather in 2009; the year after, the group even named an award in his honor for his service to the leather community. That same year, Duke took second runner-up at IML — his highest title until winning ILSb last year.
When Payne-Roy won, he became the first holder of a regional title to repeat as IML champ since ….
Well, since Weber and the 1983 IML winner, Colt Thomas. Multiple IML winners from a single titleholder? It never even happened twice before or since, but for Mr. Texas, it has happened three times — twice with Dallas leathermen.
So what is in the water — or the hide — that makes Dallas’ community so strong?
“For one, [Dallas Eagle co-owner] Mark Frazier is one of the biggest names in the leather community,” Duke says. “And we have a really big — and good — community,” he adds, noting that not only is ILSb back in Dallas (where it may stay for several years), but next month the South Plains Leather contest will come here as well, and later this fall a Pup contest. Earlier this month, the three-year-old Women in Leather International contest was back in Big D.
It’s a big group, and with size comes diversity. Leather culture has often been perceived as within the purview of white males, usually with facial hair and astride motorcycles. But the tent is bigger than that.
“The leather community, in my observation, is becoming more mainstream and less of an outlaw, outsider culture,” says Gabe Sims, who holds the title of Supreme Chief of the Fire for the Firedancers leather group, as was Mr. Texas Leather 2012. “At one time [leatherman] contests were not covered or even mentioned in the media. Now, there is attention [paid] to these events, as well as an increasingly public attention in leather, at least on a local level due to the efforts of Dan Perry, Jeffery Payne-Roy, Jack Duke, Robert Cantrell and many others.”
As an African-American, Sims also notes “the slow growth of diversity,” especially in the local leather community. “I am encouraged that we have two men of color in the Firedancers besides myself, and I do see more and more men of color coming out. However, I am hopeful that I will see more persons of color step up from visiting the leather bars to participating in leather clubs and contests.”
For her part, Synn Evans (not to be confused with boot black Syr Evan) says Dallas has one of the most accepting leather communities she has encountered.
“The women’s community [in Dallas] is smaller [than the men’s],” she says. “One of the reasons I find that is that the men are more present. But there is a fairly good-sized women’s community here, though they tend to lean more toward private parties.” (She notes that 200 women came to Dallas three weeks ago for the WIL event.) But just because the men socialize publicly more does not mean the groups are segregated.
“The men’s community has been very accepting,” Evans says. “There are always one or two [naysayers], but I have never had anything negative said or done to me because I am a woman. I have a lot of family — my chosen family — in the Dallas community, and the Eagle is my home bar.
They are like brothers to me. We are very community focused — we do a lot of fundraising for multiple charities — and I have had no feeling of separation because I am a woman. And you don’t get it everywhere.”
One reason is that the leather scene has developed and grown over the decades, adapting to the people who make it up.
“When I entered the community, there were certain rules, customs and protocol that had to be followed,” says Sims — a system he calls the Old Guard tradition: No wearing of white T-shirts. No wearing of sneakers with leather vests, shorts or harnesses. And you had to display a certain behavior in order to be considered a true leatherman.
“Increasingly, these standards are loosening up and the once-strict definition of ‘leatherman’ is being redefined, with many [Old Guard] leather community leaders even advocating this change, and strongly defending those who are re-defining the meaning of a leatherman,” Sims says.
Aspects of the leather scene continue to morph. Sims and Duke both agree that the Pup Movement is the hottest thing in leather right now.
“Puppy is the most growing group inside the leather community — it includes a lot of young boys, very handsome guys,” Duke says. But Duke also has observed the changes from a different, more international perspective.
“I started [in leather] in Italy — my first bar when I was in the army was a leather bar,” he says. “I would wear my real [army] uniform pants because I didn’t have leather, and they enforced a dress code there. Once I even had to change because they wouldn’t let me in. And you have to have a gay card — literally.”
On the other hand, the more open social rules in Europe mean that anti-gay attitudes are rare.
“I have never been persecuted for being gay. There are no raids on bars — we have no Stonewall,” Duke says.
Because of the acceptance (including nationalized medicine), fundraising isn’t as much of a focus in Italy; in Dallas, it is the life-blood of leather, as it is in many aspects of the gay community.
“America is more community-oriented because you have to fight for your rights — like marriage equality and healthcare, especially if you have AIDS,” he says.
Duke notes that probably no groups are more committed to fundraising than “drag queens and leathermen. And it’s always been that way. Who started the Stonewall Riots? Who was at the bar? … Drag queens and leathermen!” (In fact, Duke says, leather is just “a different form of drag.”)
“Texas leather is a very strong community,” adds Evans. “We’re larger and not just because it’s Texas. We have a bigger support system and get a lot of people who move back here. I’m a transplant, but Texas is my home because it is a welcoming community. We have more people who will step up and run for titles. We joke that Texas is a powerhouse, but we are. We support each other. One person can do a lot, but a lot of people can do more.”
Still, there is something foreign about the leather scene, even to openly gay folks, many of whom have been in the gay community for years.
“I think there are parts of the gay community, especially the younger crowd, who don’t understand leather,” Evans says.
The first thing they all want newcomers to understand is that leathermen and women come from all walks of life.
“There’s a Dallas couple who are deep into leather,” Duke says. “One sells makeup and perfumes, one is a hairdresser, they both make pastries. They are not stereotypes of leather.” (That’s also true of both Duke and Evans, who by day are chefs; Duke is a certified gelato master who makes ice cream for a living.)
Events like ILSb — as well as Pride events — will, hopefully, share the scope of leather as something that doesn’t have to be intimidating.
“I was talking with a boy in Atlanta [Pride] recently,” Duke recounts. “We were sharing the fact that when I rode on the Eagle float in 2010, little kids were waving and saying, ‘Hi, bikers!’ And the boy was saying they did the same thing to [his group].”
The boy related how, during one Pride parade, the leathermen were in a float, and right behind them were the gay fathers with their children, who were walking. Some of the kids were getting tired, and the fathers asked if the kids could ride with the leathermen, who happily obliged. “One of the fathers said, ‘I really changed my opinion because I thought scary things about leather,’” Duke says. “I think the fact the leather is intimidating, that the color of the leather is dark, that the bars are darker [contributes to that], but leathermen are supporting the community.”
ILSb returns to Dallas
The International Leather SIR/boy contest and expo arrives in Dallas this weekend, and it’s something of a homecoming. It was here before, and will probably stay in Dallas for the foreseeable future. So how exactly does it differ from International Mr. Leather? In quite a few ways, actually.
“IML is a more political title — your role is as an ambassador for the leather community,” explains Jack Duke, who was second runner-up at IML in 2010 and is the outgoing SIR for ILSb. “ILSb is more kinky — it’s known as a ‘player title.’”
That means, in addition to the contest where a new SIR, a new boy and a new boot black will be named, there will also be seminars and workshops during the weekend, including topics like “erotic wrestling” (taught by Dallas’ own Mark Frazier) and “flogging 101.”
But how exactly does one compete?
More than a dozen regions hold competitions (Duke competed for ILS as the reigning Gulf Coast LeatherSIR), at which they typically send a SIR (a dominant figure), a boy (a passive figure) and a boot black. (SIRs and boys are men at ILSb, but boot blacks can be men or women.) The SIR and boy do not, though, compete as a couple in the four categories: interview, formal leather, jockstrap and “fantasy.” Fantasy is not judged, and not open to the public, but a chance for a SIR with a boy (of his choosing) to demonstrate some sexy skill.
“It’s a sketch onstage where you have fun; it’s a little sexual,” Duke says. The judges provide a theme, such as “Pigs in Space.” Then there is a demo for about 15 minutes “which you don’t get points for but where you show your kink ability,” Duke says. Last year, because he’s a chef, Duke chose “food play.”
The event gets going on Friday, Aug. 30 (following registration and a roast of the departing SIR on Aug. 29), with many events taking place at the Crowne Plaza host hotel and the Dallas Eagle. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.ilsb-icbb.com/ILSb-ICBB/Home.html.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 30, 2013.