Local leathermen to compete for international title in Chicago

For the first time in its history, Pittsburgh’s leather community has a real chance to bring home an international title when Mr. Pittsburgh Leather 1998 Frank Waugh competes in the 20th International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago May 24.

IML-related events get underway May 21. In addition to the judging, the five-day gathering in Chicago will include a leather market, a 20th anniversary party, a salute to outgoing titleholder Kevin Cwayna, an AIDS candlelight memorial and the annual Black and Blue Ball.

Waugh had participated in leather contests for several years before earning his first local title in 1997 as first runner-up in that year’s Mr. Pittsburgh Leather competition. Since winning the city title this year, Waugh has served as a judge for the Ms. Pittsburgh Leather contest and was chosen second runner-up at the Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather event in Washington, DC, in January.

The IML system does not limit competition in its international division to winners of the regional contests, which are open to contestants outside of the specified region; for example, this year’s winner of the Mr. Mid-Atlantic title is from Miami.

The primary requirement for IML competitors is sponsorship by a leather/Levi or S/M bar, business or organization. Waugh will be officially sponsored at this year’s event by the Pittsburgh Motorcycle Club, but told Out he also receives “spiritual sponsorship” from other circles in Pittsburgh’s leather community, including the Pittsburgh Eagle and Leather Central.

Of the two major American leather competitions —the international Mr./Ms. Leather and the Drummer contests—the IML/IMsL events offer “more of a political, spiritual and intellectual representation of the leather community,” according to Waugh. The Drummer competitions, such as the Mr. Pennsylvania Drummer judging held May 2 at Leather Central, exhibit “a more erotic representation.”

IML competitions, for instance, omit Drummer’s “fantasy” category in which contestants are asked to perform sensual leather-themed narratives. Elimination from IML consideration is initially determined by personal interviews, which Waugh called the “most important” part of the contest. Interviews focus on “who you are as a person, and on your relationship with the leather community,” said Waugh. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the perfect Tom of Finland clone,” he added, “if you blow the interview.”

A full-dress leather judging measures “whether your energy shouts that you’re a leather person,” Waugh explained, while a question-and-answer session gauges “how you think and how you’d represent the leather community publicly, without offending the wrong-people—and maybe with offending the right ones.”

“The judges are looking for a spiritual leader,” Waugh continued, explaining that the IML competition is “not simply a beauty contest.” He noted that even in the most traditionally physical portion of the contest, the jockstrap competition, “many of the IML regional winners have not matched what the dominant culture says is attractive for men.

“The leather community embodies tolerance—of different shapes, sizes, ages, colors and fetishes—and bold self-acceptance that any gay person—any human—should gravitate toward,” Waugh emphasized. “The vision of what is beautiful in the leather community is grounded in this self-acceptance, and it is much different from both the gay and straight dominant cultures’ concept of beauty.

“Leather is a state of mind,” Waugh stressed, “a particular state of being, as much as it is a collection of specific activities, relationships or fetishes. To define the leather community simply by a style of dress or a group of behaviors—deemed twisted by some—is to miss the point of this community altogether. Leather is who we are as much as it is how we look or what we do.”

As a vocal advocate for this broader understanding of leather, Waugh said he believes that “spiritually, the leather community represents boldness, standing up and being yourself in a really in-your-face way.”

In part it was this sense of assertive individualism that drew Waugh to the leather community. “I’ve always been attracted to the counterculture, to the anti-establishment, and I found a definite home [in the leather community],” he said.

Waugh, who grew up in the rural South, said he has discovered “less tolerance and appreciation” for leather culture in Pittsburgh than he expected. “Even though we’re a large metropolitan city, we’re relatively conservative in Pittsburgh,” he added.

“To become part of the ‘out’ and pronounced leather community here takes a definite decision that this is who you are,” Waugh said. “You really have to come out twice. That’s true in general for those in the leather community, but it’s especially true in this city.”

Waugh said he also believes that misunderstandings between supporters of more traditional and less traditional concepts of leather have helped to create a rift within the city’s leather community. One of Waugh’s primary objectives as Mr. Pittsburgh Leather, he said, is “to bring the leather community closer together, and to represent a more unified leather community to both the larger gay and straight communities.”

Waugh said he views his role as a leader in Pittsburgh’s leather community as a “conciliatory” one. “Leather is not really about what you’re wearing, or about the behaviors you engage in sexually or socially,” he said. “It’s about who you are at core. And if leather is about tolerance, about accepting a lot of different approaches to gender issues, then maligning other groups, like the drag community, is a violation of principle.

“[The leather community is] not here to split people apart, but to bring them together,” Waugh believes. “We must demonstrate a sense of unity and collaboration within the gay community. To get caught up in skirmishes among ourselves is too expensive. If we demonstrate tolerance within our community, we stand a good chance of gaining the tolerance of the wider community.”

This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh’s Out. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.