Tug Whitehead is using the International Leather Sir title to spread the word about being free to be yourself
“It’s OK to be kinky. Do your 9 to 5, then at 6 o’clock, crack out that bullwhip if that’s what you want. You are not alone.”
That’s the message that David “Tug” Whitehead of Dallas wants to share with men and women across the country, around the world even, as he makes his way through his year as International Leather Sir.
Whitehead claimed the title in the Dallas-based contest — which includes the International Leather Sir/boy competition and the International Community Bootblack competition — last September. He will pass the sash to the 2016-17 winner at the climax of this year’s contest, set for Sept. 1-4 at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Dallas – Campbell Centre. But in the meantime, he plans to keep on preaching the gospel of self-expression.
“There’s a common misperception out there that there’s something wrong with what we do, that leather is this big, scary thing,” Whitehead said. “But really, leather people are just every day people who have a certain way of expressing themselves. People need to know, how you express yourself is just fine. It’s a celebration of who you are.”
Whitehead was born “just south of Memphis” in a little town called Southaven, Miss., and grew up not too far away in another small town called Byhalia. He went to college at Ole Miss — aka The University of Mississippi — then about 1989, moved to Memphis. Whitehead spent 13 years in the U.S. Army, doing two tours of duty in Desert Storm, before moving to the Army Reserves and the National Guard.
He lived in Santa Fe for awhile, then moved to Fort Lauderdale in Florida then up to Chicago before landing in Dallas.
He worked for American Airlines as a flight service manager until the merger with U.S. Air, then spent time in marketing with a pharmacy before taking his current job as director of marketing for a legal services firm.
Whitehead acknowledges that it took him awhile to come to realization himself that it’s OK to be yourself, even when that means being different. It was, he said, as much a coming out process as acknowledging that he was gay.
“I had to come out twice. I came out as gay, but I kept my kink hidden for years,” he said. “For years, I enjoyed doing all these things. But if was very difficult when I wasn’t out about it to find people who enjoyed doing the same things.”
Whitehead said his first foray into the world of leather came years ago when he was still underage and snuck into a bar in Memphis, Tenn., called The Pipeline. “I snuck in behind someone who was significantly older. I walked in dressed like your typical college boy. But there was a shop inside the bar [that sold leather clothing and accessories]. I bought my first leather harness there, and it just went from there.”
The kink, he continued, “came afterwards, when I started finding such great pleasure in the physical expression” of BDSM sexuality, in using that mixture of pleasure and pain to help a submissive partner “cross that line to catharsis,” resulting in “great satisfaction for both of us.”
As a leather Sir, Whitehead cuts a commanding figure in his personal life. In fact, he has two boys that serve him, both of whom have won regional contests and so advance to the international event — one competing for International Leather boy, the other for International Community Bootblack — here in Dallas in September.
But Whitehead is still very much an introvert. Because of that, “This year as International Leather Sir has been an extreme test for me,” he said. “I have really had to step outside my box.”
Each ILS/b-ICBB winner is given a set amount of money for travel to fulfill the duties that come with the title. That’s helpful, Whitehead said, because “people want me to teach, to lecture, judge contests. It just keeps adding up. And if I go over the allotted amount for travel, then the rest comes out of my pocket.”
There are other leather-related contests out there. International Mr. Leather, for example, is held over the Memorial Day Weekend each year in Chicago. But, Whitehead said, “what drew me to the International Leather Sir contest is that the winners are required to carry on with charitable work. I can’t even tell you how many fundraisers I’ve done since last September.
“That’s the thing about charity, though. Do you give money, or do you do something? To me, it’s less about just writing a check and more about rolling up your sleeves and getting in there and doing something to help raise the money,” Whitehead said.
While Whitehead may have found the public side of being International Leather Sir to be a test for his introverted personality, it is a test he is passing with flying colors, according to ILS/b-ICBB board member Chris Edwards.
“In the history of International Leather Sir, we’ve had five very different titleholders. They have all represented the title differently, and they have all represented it very well,” Edwards said. “Winning the title gives you a kind of celebrity.
What you choose to do with it is up to you.”
Edwards noted that the titleholders themselves decide which charities they will work for, and Whitehead looked outside the leather/kink community and outside the LGBT community for at least some of his charity work. In February, he noted, Whitehead staged a campaign to sell T-shirts to raise money for a military veterans’ group.
“This is an organization that has nothing to do with his sexuality. But he’s a veteran, and he wanted to give something back to his brothers and sisters who were in the military, too,” Edwards said.
“It wasn’t a huge amount,” he continued. “But it made a difference. We [in the leather/kink and LGBT communities] sometimes get a bad rap for being very insular in terms of our charitable work. But this shows that we give back to our communities — all of them — in many different ways. And Sir Tug has another benefit coming up at the end of this month in Fort Worth — Boots and Bikes for Vets on June 26 at Underground Cigar Shop.”
Whitehead said that “service to my community has always been a big deal personally. People don’t always realize how much the leather community gives back — whether it’s getting out there and picking up trash or helping get food for someone who’s hungry or helping educate people on the proper pronouns to use with transgender people.”
While it’s nearly impossible to find one charitable outlet that affects the whole broad spectrum of the community, “what’s important is to touch one person at a time. That’s what helps build community.”
And Whitehead is always looking for different ways to reach out and educate. Surprisingly enough, he was recently asked to travel to Bozeman, Mont., to speak — as International Leather Sir — to a group of high school drama students. He said he insisted on being seated on stage, with the students seated in a circle around him, while their parents looked on from the audience.
“I told them, ‘You ask me whatever you want, and I’ll answer as honestly as I can.’ And they did, and I did,” he said.
The students’ questions covered a wide range of topics on BDSM — fisting, flogging, caning, sounding. “And the parents were sitting there wondering, ‘How the hell does my kid even know to ask about these things?’ We ended up bringing the parents onto the stage to be part of the discussion, and they ended up asking even more questions than the kids.”
While that may not be his usual audience, Whitehead said it is a shining example of how he is able to reach out to dispel some of the myths about the leather/kink and LGBT communities. And dispelling myths can help stop discrimination and prejudice. He also hopes to be a guidepost for others on their own personal BDSM journeys, something that his leather helps him do.
“When I put [the leather] on, I am three or four inches taller,” Whitehead said. “It helps me to be true to who I am, to be true to community. That helps me be there as a mentor or a guide to others on their journeys, to honor those who came before. I want to be there to represent all the ones who were or are afraid to express themselves, and to help them get over that fear.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 10, 2016.