The following history was originally published in the IMsL 2011 Program Book. It was written by Rae with input and assistance from Dr. Gayle Rubin, Amy Marie Meek, Audrey Joseph, Dr. Alex Warner, Lisa G and Glenda Rider.
The year was 1986. International Mr. Leather (IML) had been in existence for eight years, preceded by the Mr. Gold Coast Contest. IML had grown quickly, starting with 12 contestants in 1979 and averaging close to 30 contestants a year. The Lesbian Sex Mafia, the women's SM organization in New York City, was celebrating its fifth anniversary. The Folsom Street Fair had been around for two years, and the Up You Alley (first Ringold, then Dore) Fair had begun the year before. Many local and regional men's leather contests were in full swing. And Samois, the world's first women's SM group which was founded in the Bay Area in 1978 as "a lesbian feminist s/m organization," hosted a Ms Leather Contest in 1981.
For kinky lesbians and others in the women's movement, these days are also remembered as the "sex wars." SM women faced discrimination because some feminists believed that SM, even if practiced by women, promoted violence against women and perpetuated patriarchal role models. Many individual women and women's groups, like Samois, found themselves at odds with a variety of women's spaces, including feminist publications, bookstores and women's centers. Samois folded in 1983, shortly after their publication of the groundbreaking Coming to Power, yet the women's SM community continued to grow in the Bay Area and around the country. In 1984, the Outcasts, a new organization for Bay Area SM women, drew 80 women to their first organizational meeting, joining other groups which started to form across the country and around the world throughout the '80s.
Amidst all of this growth and activism in the leather community, a darker reality was emerging; the AIDS epidemic was raging. Women, particularly sex workers, were starting to die side by side with the countless gay men who were ill. Galvanized by an urgent need for fundraising and the sheer impetus to take action in the face of such devastation, gay and queer women stepped up to help their gay and lesbian communities. Against a world-wide backdrop of fear-based sex-negativity the women's leather community pushed back against the epidemic by coming together to celebrate their sexuality. It was a time of growth in the face of death.
It was in this social climate that the idea for the first International Ms Leather Contest was launched. IMsL was founded in July 1986, when Joann Lee and Alan Selby (the "Mr. S" of the Mr. S Leather store) assembled the initial steering committee. Joann Lee, Alan Selby, Kathy Gage, Gayle Rubin, JimEd Thompson, Chris Burns, Patrick Toner, and Christian Haren composed the first planning meeting, and additional volunteers from the Outcasts were soon recruited to help out. At the beginning, IMsL had the support of the Outcasts and the Society of Janus, a mixed gender/ mixed sexual-orientation SM organization. Other prominent members of the Leather community were supportive of IMsL, including Chuck Renslow, the owner of IML
The first IMsL contest was held in 1987. It began as a one-night event, held at a bar named DV8, which boasted a Keith Haring mural on one wall. Sixteen IMsL contestants crammed onto a tiny stage that was barely the size of a few tables. The women competing were gay, bi, heterosexual, and undefined. They came from all over the country, including Arizona, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, New York, Philadelphia and other cities – and from Canada. Each contestant was a regional titleholder, sponsored by a bar, organization, or club. Some men's Leather bars around the country put on "Ms" contests. Many of these local and regional women's contests were created that year, to act as feeders for IMsL. Roughly 400 people – mostly gay men – packed into the crowded bar to see the contest.
For the first IMsL, DV8 donated the space to reduce operating costs, and entry to the event was $20 in advance, $25 at the door. From the very beginning, IMsL was operated as a fundraising event with the money donated to AIDS charities, particularly gay men's AIDS organizations. For the first few years, all proceeds were donated; not even seed money for the following year was retained.
Judy Tallwing, then from Portland, was the first International Ms Leather. While the contest was originally envisioned primarily as a one-night fundraising event, being International Ms Leather immediately started to become a year-round commitment. Judy began holding fundraisers in various cities and used her visibility as a titleholder to draw attention and money to various worthy causes. This community activism and outreach is now an integral part of what it means to be an IMsL. As IMsL became a year-round position with national and international expectations, a travel fund became necessary. The first travel fund, started in 1988, was named for Sashie Hyatt, Judy Tallwing's partner, a cancer survivor and an instrumental organizer in the Oregon Leather scene.
After the first contest, the membership of the board shifted. Kathy Gage, Peter Rath, Sky Renfro, Shadow Morton (the first Ms San Francisco Leather), Helen Ruvelas, Alan Selby, JimEd Thompson, Patrick Toner, and Audrey Joseph became the core of the group that produced IMsL for the following eight years. International Ms Leather grew quickly. The second contest was held at the Giftcenter, a tradeshow venue in the South of Market neighborhood, just a few blocks south of Folsom Street - San Francisco's Leather nexus. The ticket price of the event went up to $25-50, as the production value and associated costs of producing the event increased. From a small stage and crowded standing-room-only setting in a local bar, the contest changed within a year to a production on a large stage, with tables and individual seating available on two levels. Businesses sponsoring the event bought tables of 10 people, as did publications such as Drummer and On Our Backs, and many individuals from the community bought tables of 4-10 people or individual tickets. There were again more than a dozen contestants and comedian Shann Carr, then from Portland, was declared the winner.
The International Ms Leather contest stayed in San Francisco for eight years. It was incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in California and the board ran IMsL with the assistance of a changing crew of local volunteers; there was no paid staff. Local organizations contributed their time to make the event happen. The Golden Gate Guards, a men's motorcycle club, volunteered as ushers, and there was a talented and enthusiastic stage crew making each event an exciting, hot production. Dramatic lighting, carefully crafted and scripted fantasy scenes, props and costumes, and hours of rehearsals ensured a captivating, sexy show every time. The team who worked to make it all happen became a tight-knit crew. Board member Audrey Joseph said, reminiscing about the fantastic stage crew, "It was family building. We laughed so much and cared about each other so much… The greatest parts of the [Leather/queer] movement, when people really shined, were when we were glued together for a cause that we really cared about." International Ms Leather grew to be a family. The production crew was a family, the past titleholders became a family, and many attendees returned year after year to visit and play with their extended leather family from around the country.
After the Giftcenter, the contest moved to a hotel venue and then to Club Townsend, which was owned by board member Audrey Joseph. IMsL was able to use Club Townsend for free, which allowed them to maximize the proceeds that were donated to charity each year. Through the first eight years, IMsL was primarily a one-night event. Local groups and dungeons hosted play parties during IMsL weekend, and out-of-town attendees were invited to enjoy the San Francisco scene for the weekend. Each year, contestants came from around the country, often bringing with them a contingent of attendees from their home city. IMsL gained momentum as an event that brought together kinky women from around the continent and drew a small number of attendees from elsewhere in the world each year.
As the years passed the AIDS epidemic and its impact on the gay and lesbian community changed. There were breakthroughs in medical treatment, much of it spurred by AIDS activists, and in 1995 protease inhibitors were introduced, leading to dramatic declines in mortality. In 1998, San Francisco's gay newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter, ran its famous "No Obits" headline, announcing that, for the first time in years, there were no obituaries to print in that week's paper. As the course of AIDS changed, the focus of IMsL's fundraising efforts changed and more titleholders incorporated their personal interests into their title-year activism.
By the mid-nineties, after nearly a decade of dedicating their time to producing IMsL, the board and many local volunteers had started to burn out. It was unclear what the future of IMsL would be, or if IMsL would continue at all. In 1994, Amy Marie Meek, IMsL 1993, wrote an impassioned letter to the board, begging them to keep IMsL alive and offering to take over and run the contest herself. The board agreed and sold the right to produce IMsL to Amy Marie for $1 a year for ten years. Amy Marie produced IMsL in 1995 to great acclaim, and she continued to produce IMsL for twelve years, taking it through to the 20th annual contest in 2006. Amy Marie chose to move IMsL from city to city so that each city would have the chance to host and showcase their kink community. Each host city could use IMsL as a way to rally and invigorate their local scene. Starting in Chicago in 1995, IMsL then moved to Philadelphia, San Diego, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Toronto, and Dallas. Over time, IMsL morphed into a weekend event, incorporating play parties, opening ceremonies, a vendor fair, tattoo contest and other fundraisers into a large-scale event that drew visitors from around the world. Having the same people together for a full weekend helped develop the sense of community among the attendees; people had time to get to know each other, network, cruise, and find play dates, all with a readily available dungeon or hotel room. IMsL had always had a strong educational aspect, and the weekend-long format allowed the educational component of IMsL to grow, with expert presenters teaching a variety of kinky topics. The contests continued to average between 10 and 20 contestants, drawing from an active pool of local and regional title contests. Amy Marie worked closely with local and regional contest producers to streamline and promote their events. Many of the contests converted to Amy Marie's scoring and application system.
Throughout IMsL's history, men as well as women supported and sustained the contest. In many years during Amy Marie's tenure running IMsL, more than half of the attendees were men, including the support teams for many contestants. In fact, Bare Images, Amy Marie's production company, always promoted IMsL with the tag line, "The Men Who Come To IMsL Come To Play!"
In 1993, IML had added a bootblack contest to their event; initially it was a co-ed contest accepting both men and women. In 1999, Amy Marie added the International Ms Bootblack contest to the IMsL weekend as the International Mr. Bootblack contest had switched that year to a male-only contest. Following the International Mr. Bootblack model, the IMsBB contest focused on technical skill in bootblacking. The contestants spent much of the weekend exhibiting their bootblacking craft, and attendees voted for the best bootblack. The IMsBB contest judging was later switched to more closely match the IMsL judging. Now, IMsBB contestants are still judged largely on their technical skill, but they are also judged in a variety of categories, including an interview. IMsBB has proven to be a great success and has become an integral part of the IMsL weekend; the IMsBB and IMsL winners work together through their title year to promote the IMsL contest weekend and to represent the women's leather community.
In 2002, IMsL moved to Amy Marie's hometown, Omaha, Nebraska, in an attempt to streamline the contest's administration and to rein in production costs. IMsL remained in Omaha through 2006, drawing leatherwomen from around the continent to the heartland of the country. Even in the heartland, IMsL remained an international event. In the first year it was held in Omaha, the winner was Russ Cossgrove, of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and winners in the following years were scattered through various time zones in the United States.
By 2006, after running IMsL for 12 years, Amy Marie was ready to hand off IMsL/ IMsBB and have someone else take the event into its next phase. Amy Marie considered her options very carefully and an agreement was made with a community friend of 15 years, Glenda Rider. Glenda was selected for her experience, network connections, and true heartfelt passion for IMsL and the leather community as a whole.
In 2007, IMsL made a triumphant return to its roots in the heart of San Francisco, and it has continued at this location through the present. Glenda intends to run IMsL for a full decade and to keep IMsL in the Bay Area for the foreseeable future. IMsL now runs from Thursday through Sunday, providing an extended weekend for leatherwomen to meet, cruise, and play. In 2007 Glenda ran IMsL with the year-round assistance and effort of her then-partner and co-producer, Levi Halberstadt, as well as the efforts of Darryl Flick and Celeste Devenaux. Levi's contributions cannot be overstated as he brought both vision and day to day managerial skills to the project, keeping it on track throughout the return to San Francisco. Glenda has also been supported by a committed volunteer staff comprised largely of her friends and family.
In 2008, tomo joined the team of Producers, bringing with her a wealth of organizational experiences and project management skills. Ms Rhonda, who had been on staff since the event's return to the Bay Area, was added to the team of Producers in 2010 to draw from her extensive performance and production experience. With Levi's retirement after the 2010 event, IMsL is now run by three Producers, with the continued support of an amazing volunteer staff that works year round. Roughly a hundred individuals volunteer their time during the event weekend itself, running the stage crew, security, registration, and many other aspects of the weekend.
Glenda says that one purpose for IMsL weekend is, "so leatherwomen can meet each other, find community, learn new skills and perfect their old ones, and have a good time along the way." To make this happen, the on-site playspaces are open 24 hours a day, offering men's, women's, and mixed areas. In the past five years, the weekend schedule has been shifted to allow more events to get attendees flirting and playing. "Speed Tricking," a kinky version of speed dating was added, and it was so successful that, in the following year, it was held twice instead of just once. Thursday night's "Seduction" event, which is focused on burlesque and strip performances, gets everyone excited and turned on for a sexy weekend. Hospitality parties run from morning until late at night, encouraging attendees to stay at the event, flirt, and cruise. The weekend is designed to have something for everyone: daily recovery meetings, a late-night boots and cigar party, a Butch-Boi slumber party (complete with spin-the-bottle), a smoking hot Uniform Party hosted by the Dyke Uniform Corps, and the Champagne and Chocolates Reception put on by The Exiles, San Francisco's current women's SM organization, to list just a few.
Throughout all the fun of "Making Play Happen", IMsL continues to raise considerable funds for charities and now provides a multitude of educational experiences. From traditional technique classes to panel discussions about what it means to be a leatherwoman, the IMsL team is always striving to bring leatherwomen the best in peer based learning. Since returning to San Francisco, the educational program at IMsL has experimented with innovative class formats, branching out from the traditional lecture-and-demo to include half-day intensives on Friday and a hands-on "sampler" experience on Sunday to allow participants to learn by doing, in small groups, with experienced presenters acting as mentors.
Of course, the focal point of the weekend remains the contest itself. The women who have held the title of International Ms Leather and International Ms Bootblack are a powerful and diverse group. Together, they span a variety of ages, races and ethnicities. They come from all over the US and from Canada. They are bottoms, tops, and switches, gay/dyke/lesbian, straight, bisexual, and transgender. They have a variety of fetishes. Some have been in the community for a few years, while some are multi-decade veterans of leather organizing, activism, and education. In their personal lives, they are athletes, artists, parents, and members of their spiritual communities. They have overcome hardships including illness, violence, and addiction. They volunteer their time for a wide variety of causes, including AIDS charities, homeless assistance, animal rescue, union organizing, LGBT groups, theater, and the Girl Scouts. Their occupations are equally varied; they include lawyers, rope-makers, biologists, construction workers, non-profit workers, authors, military veterans, healthcare providers, and many other professions.
Over the years, International Ms Leather has provided a venue for leatherwomen and all kinds of kinky folks to meet and play. It has raised substantial money for AIDS charities and other organizations. IMsLs and IMsBBs have acted as effective representatives for the community, helping to educate, promote IMsL weekend, and speak out for the causes they believe in. IMsL has helped bring Leather up from the underground and out of the closet; in the past few years IMsL has been honored with proclamations from the City of San Francisco and the California State Assembly and State Senate. International Ms Leather, including International Ms Bootblack, has become a beloved event that people return to year after year. It is a vital part of the women's Leather community.