By Justin Hayford

It’s Friday afternoon, and leathermen fill the halls of Congress. No, not in Washington, but at the Congress Hotel on South Michigan Avenue, headquarters for International Mr. Leather 1997. On this first day of the annual contest and convention, the smell of tanned hide turns the air thick and sweet as syrup. The second and third floors of the hotel are being transformed into the world’s largest leather market, as vendors from around the world set up shop, laying out motorcycle jackets, codpieces, thongs, and various instruments of torture. Downstairs the lobby is a sea of muscular bulk and close-cropped hair. Men are everywhere, holding hands, laughing, tweaking each other’s nipples. Every conceivable item of leather clothing is on display: chaps, harnesses, minishorts, even a set of scaly epaulets that cascade down to the elbows.

A few Memorial Day tourists try not to stare, then scurry. Bellboys stand motionless, looking dazed. In the middle of the crowd, a hefty, balding man kneels on the floor, the words “International Slave 1993” spelled out in silver studs across the back of his black leather vest. He pets a sleeping, muzzled Doberman, its head resting at the feet of its–I mean their–master.

Meanwhile, up in room 416, my old college buddy Kevin Cwayna, aka Mr. Minnesota Leather, is trying his best not to hurt my feelings. I’m itching to dive headlong into the action downstairs with him as my tour guide and interpreter, hoping to recapture the thrill of the days when he introduced me to the delicious hedonism of places like Paradise and Carol’s. Nearly every Friday night we headed downtown on the el, swigging Pepsi cans full of gin, Madonna bracelets clanking against the string of pearls wrapped around my wrist. Sure, he had a boyfriend, but I was his dancing partner. I would spend the evening watching men flock to him, drawn by the kind of gracefulness and charm one normally associates with a 19th-century countess. He was Kevin-Marie. I was Tina. For a time, we were darn near inseparable.

But today he’s worried about being seen with me. Having a scrawny, bookish fellow at his side may detract from his overall “leather image,” he explains, hurting his chances in Sunday’s competition. “They don’t tell us who the judges are,” he apologizes. And though the official competition isn’t for two days, he’s being judged from the moment he sets foot in the hotel.

“Actually, it’s not so much my leather image,” he explains. “The Minneapolis gay community has become, well, a zoo. It’s become this hot thing that all these straight people suddenly want to see. So every time we try to create a space that’s ours, where we’re comfortable, there are a million gawkers. And they fucking follow us around everywhere. I need to be with people who respect the space that we’ve created, that we’ve made for ourselves.”

Any chance of a quick bite in the hotel cafeteria?

He gives me a long, sympathetic look–Kevin is the type of guy who makes June Cleaver seem inconsiderate–and then asks me to slap on his chaps over my jeans. I oblige, zipping myself into the same set of skin he wears in his official photo on the International Mr. Leather Web page. Briefly, I rediscover masculinity, a concept that has eluded me for the better part of 33 years. But my green button-down shirt, suede walking shoes, antique glasses, and feathery hair destroy the fantasy. Besides, the chaps make my ass look like a pillow nobody would ever want to sleep on. We’ll sit in the room and catch up on the past year.

Kevin won his title last October. The competition was held at the Gay Nineties, a multistory mecca in downtown Minneapolis that occupies almost an entire city block. On the day before the show Kevin, like all the other contestants, had to meet one-on-one with the judges for his personal interview. “They asked me what I thought of drugs in the leather community, what I thought of women in the leather community,” he recalls, stretching out on his bed and lighting a cigarette. “Then they asked what turns me on sexually. At first I was a bit like, ‘Leave me alone on that one.’ But I realized what they want to know is, can you be open and honest about sexuality? That’s part of what an ideal leatherman is. So my answer was ‘power exchange.’ And they liked that.”

In competition the next day, Kevin had to present a sexual fantasy onstage. “Everyone else tried to do some elaborate scene, with lots of lights and music and stuff. They would act out a seduction of some sort or a jack-off fantasy or whatever. I found them so contrived. The most I would get out of them was maybe a nice visual image.” He laughs and takes a long drag on his Benson & Hedges DeLuxe Ultra Light 100, a brand I’m betting he doesn’t carry with him when he leaves the room. “So I just read a piece of erotica I wrote, about what it feels like to give up complete control.”

Finally the contestants, following in the unlikely footsteps of Miss Universe, had to answer a public question. “Our question was, ‘What was the most difficult decision you ever had to make?’ There were maybe 500 people watching me, and I thought I could be really deep and truthful like everyone else who answered the question. But I wasn’t feeling too safe. So I said, ‘Choosing between a Ding-Dong and a Ho-Ho.’ I think that showed them what I thought of their question.”

Whatever it showed them, it worked, and Kevin received $1,000, a studded leather sash, and the right to compete in Chicago’s international contest. Now in its 19th year, dubbed “the Academy Awards of leatherdom” by Drummer Magazine, the event draws some 3,000 people to the city for a weekend of meetings, merchandising, and above all partying. Trying to set foot in any of the city’s leather bars during the weekend is a near impossibility. On Sunday the tribe will gather at the old, decaying Congress Theater on the northwest side to watch 53 men vie for the right to “represent the diversity of people bound by one common denominator–the leather lifestyle.”

Compared to the ominous, intricately decorated throng in the lobby, Kevin, in clumpy black boots, faded jeans, and a black T-shirt, looks like the boy next door. Does he think he has a shot? “I think I’ll make the first cut,” he hedges. That cut will be determined tomorrow, when the judges narrow the field to 20 semifinalists after a day of interviews with the contestants. “I know they’re going to ask me if I want to win. And I’ll tell them…I don’t know. I would be honored and flattered to win. But do I want to spend the next year making personal appearances in dark bars?”

How does someone prepare for a contest that seems to involve little more than wearing leather and marching back and forth across a stage? “Last year’s Mr. Minnesota told me, ‘It’s all about outfit,'” Kevin says. “He told me, ‘You have to wear a different outfit every time you walk out of your hotel room.’ Of course, he didn’t even make the first cut, so forget that. Instead I spent three months in the gym, slamming down protein shakes, going to tanning salons, all that nonsense. But most of my preparation has been mental, thinking about what I value in the leather community, about what I want to represent.”

While a lot of people may envision that community as a bunch of scary, beefy guys who get off on beating each other up, Kevin sees things quite differently. “It takes a certain amount of social courage to identify with the leather community,” he says. “So a lot of these people are community leaders. This is a doctors-and-lawyers crowd.” Kevin himself is an MD, a university lecturer, the founder of a home for runaway gay youths, and the producer of a gay cable-access television program in Minneapolis.

“This is the one community that knows how to talk about sex,” he says. “Everything is on the table at the start. It’s all about safety and respect. ‘What are your safe words? What are your fantasies? What are your limitations?’ You don’t hear that in any twinkie bar?” And as numerous HIV prevention studies around the country have shown, one of the primary factors in practicing safe sex is the ability to talk about it.

“We’re willing to admit that sex is about power, that one great source of pleasure is the exchange of power. Not for everyone, but for some. I think we’re being more honest than most of America, which likes to imagine sex as a loving, mutual exchange between equals. Please.”

As Kevin points out, the specter of AIDS hangs over the leather world with particular gravity. “HIV has devastated this community. When you meet a leatherman over 40, you assume he’s been through hell. But there’s probably a directness about him, a frankness about his need to live life fully right now. He’s got a sense of realness that’s lost in other parts of the gay community.

“And it’s the only community I’ve been part of that isn’t ageist. I mean, some of the stars of this community are in their 60s. It’s great because, well, I love older men.” He smiles the smile that made all the women in our college dorm swoon. “But it also gives me hope for a future. We can create a gay community that doesn’t end when you turn 30.”

The ability to create new social norms excites Kevin perhaps more than anything else. “It’s not uncommon to hear a leatherman say, ‘This is my lover, and this is my boy. And we all live together.’ That’s their arrangement. We can offer new ideas about families. Create what you want. Don’t go chasing after what everyone else says you’re supposed to want.”

He sits quietly for a moment, taking another drag on his cigarette, his third in about as many minutes. “You know, the more I talk about it, the more I hope I win.”

At 6:25 on Sunday evening, the line of leathermen waiting to get into the Congress Theater snakes half a block down Milwaukee and around the corner onto Rockwell. A shuttle bus from the hotel drops off a few dozen more. Across the street two young girls who can’t be older than ten dance to the music playing in their headphones and try to count the leathermen, quickly give up, and skip away.

A few minutes after the doors open, the theater lobby is thick with cigar smoke. On the sweeping staircase, the pretend police laugh over beers with the make-believe gestapo. Against one wall a photographer has set up a mottled brown backdrop in front of which leathermen pose, prom-style. A California Highway Patrol officer and a hulking man in a black leather breastplate and skirt and a painted-on latex mask stand before the camera. Two gray-haired men behind the photographer smile enthusiastically, like parents encouraging their children to venture into the deep end of the swimming pool. To the photographer’s right another couple dissolve into laughter when their photo is handed to them.

Inside the cavernous theater, the seats quickly fill up. Camera crews jockey for position; in addition to a live Internet video telecast, the BBC is filming a documentary on leather in America. I grab a seat in the front row of the balcony, hoping that my not having shaved this morning will grant me at least a few token butch brownie points. I say a short prayer for Kevin, because in truth I don’t think he’s got one. He’s a sweetheart, the guy everyone in the dorm ended up confessing their miseries to, the least threatening person in the theater. I feel like a mother come to watch her son’s violin competition knowing the kid is tone-deaf.

After a presentation of colors by the American Uniform Association and a rendition of the national anthem with botched lyrics, a few faux construction workers saunter out in hard hats and short shorts. They pick up two-by-fours from a pile at center stage and begin a twirling routine to a thumping techno beat. They spank themselves with the boards, pound on them, transform them over and over into surrogate erections, until the contestants file on one by one, each removing his shirt and tossing it onto a pile downstage. Every manner of physique crosses the stage, from lithe to buff to burly to chubby. Most of the contestants are balding. Kevin, looking downright Stallone-esque and flashing that magic smile, yanks off his tank top, then does a quick hop, skip, and grope to the delight of the crowd. I sit up in my seat, realizing he’s the first contestant to get a reaction from the audience. Does he have a chance after all? Then the guy right behind him rips his tank top in half, sending the audience into ecstasy. I sit back and settle in for the evening.

Frank Nowicki, introduced as “the premiere MC of the leather community,” arrives at the podium in a leather swallowtail tux, and the real judging gets under way. First the contestants simply walk across the stage one by one, pausing before the judges, doing anything to get the crowd to cheer for them. Kevin is contestant 39, and for a while it seems he’ll have little competition. Contestant 11, Oklahoma Mr. Leather, wears a white blousy shirt, the poor, misguided dear. Contestant 19, Mr. Philadelphia Leather, trips stepping onto the marley floor. Contestant 20, Mr. Wisconsin Fantasy, looks like a deranged Girl Scout.

Then comes Mr. Florida Leather, contestant 26. He’s hunky. He’s hairy. He’s swarthy. And he’s deaf. A perfect leatherman for the PC 90s. The place goes wild. Why not just end the show right here?

Kevin enters in vest and chaps. He stops center stage, places one hand just below his navel, extends the other over his head like a gospel choir singer getting the spirit, squints his eyes, and thrusts his pelvis in time to the music. This is the I’m-so-funky-I-hurt move we perfected a decade ago during long hours on the dance floor. He smiles and lowers his head coyly. The crowd is definitely with him, but, as much as I hate to admit it, my money is still on Mr. Florida.

After a greeting from contest founder and executive producer Chuck Renslow, the introduction of the judges, a wave from state representative Larry McKeon, innumerable announcements about upcoming leather events across the globe, and a drum-and-power-tools performance by a Minneapolis quartet called Savage Aurul Hotbed, it’s time for the naming of the 20 semifinalists. Kevin’s name is the 19th announced. I sit up in my seat again. Mr. Florida also makes the cut, as does Mr. Southern California, with a body by Van Damme and a face by Melrose Place, and someone with the curious title of Mr. L.U.R.E., all barrel chest and dimples. Kevin’s in trouble.

The contestants now face the physique competition, which entails walking across the stage in a jock strap or thong and revving up the crowd. I don’t pay much attention; Kevin told me a few days ago that the speech competition makes or breaks a contestant. Each is given 90 seconds to explain his platform and give testimony to the importance of leather in his life. Standing alone on the gargantuan stage, the men speak with disarming poise, passion, and candor, chronicling the havoc that AIDS has brought to their lives, celebrating the sense of community they have found with each other, outlining the dangers they see ahead. Mr. Baltimore Eagle laments the fact that so many young gay men are returning to unsafe sex, exhorting his colleagues to become the teachers for the next generation. Mr. FUKC (Fellowship of United Kingdom Clubs) warns the crowd that the Promise Keepers, “a group dedicated to the destruction of our people,” is gathering by the thousands in Chicago this weekend as well. Mr. New Mexico Leather holds the crowd in rapt silence when he says, “Because we play in pain and submission, we know respect and gentleness. Because we have danced to the tune of death for so long, we know the song of life by heart.” In contrast to their hypermacho image, these guys wear their hearts on their sleeves. The theater fills with a pervasive warmth I’ve never felt at any gay event.

Mr. Florida goes to the microphone. I’m ready to watch him clinch the title. Instead, he tells us a half dozen times that he’s “really deaf,” then mentions something about the importance of American Sign Language, then leaves the stage. The hall fills with polite applause. Mr. Southern California takes his turn, speaking with all the ersatz enthusiasm of a flight attendant. The two piss-drunk leather queens to my left can’t contain their derisive laughter. It seems the door has been left wide open for Kevin.

He comes center stage. “During the interview with the judges,” he begins, “they asked me, ‘When did you become a leatherman?'” He takes the microphone from the stand and heads downstage. “At first I thought it might have been when I was 14 and would tie myself up.” A few chuckles. “Then I thought it was when I was 16 and used my shoelaces to tie up my balls and swing my shoes between my legs.” Some big laughs. “Then I thought it was when I discovered the hardware store.” Belly laughs and applause. Kevin comes farther downstage, cool as a veteran stand-up comic. “But actually it was when I walked into my first leather bar at age 26. And I saw people there who were–over 30.” He cocks his head to one side, remembering that moment, an expression of disbelief and wonder spreading across his face. He looks ten years old. The crowd explodes into laughter and then tumultuous applause. This is the biggest ovation anyone has gotten all night.

“I realized that maybe life doesn’t end at 30 when you’re gay. And–” Suddenly his microphone goes dead. He’s exceeded his time limit. Shock silences the crowd. Kevin attempts a sheepish grin and waves stiffly, shuffling offstage with knees that don’t seem to bend as well as they did 90 seconds ago. This, I’ve got to believe, is a calamity no less serious than if Miss Tennessee were yanked off the Atlantic City stage in the middle of her tap routine. The mother in me feels her stomach sink. Looks like Mr. Dimples is a shoo-in.

It’s nearing midnight. Comic Scott Thompson, the headliner for the evening, has just finished the most courageous routine I’ve ever seen. Adopting that ultrafey persona he made famous on Kids in the Hall, summoning a slave from the audience to hold his martini like a human coffee table, he spent most of his time joking about the plague. “After 15 years of AIDS we’re as tough as cockroaches–and just as scared of the light,” he said. He even joked about the “good things” that would happen to him if he became HIV positive. “I would finally appear in The Advocate. I would get to meet Liz Taylor.” This seems a bit like joking about flood damage with the folks along the Red River. His act could have been the biggest onstage disaster since Carrie, the Musical. Instead, it brought the crowd to its feet.

The big moment has arrived at last. The semifinalists stand in a line upstage. Three black boxes have been placed center stage, makeshift pedestals awaiting the winners. There is a nervous shuffling of envelopes at Nowicki’s post. The second runner-up is Mr. Dimples. The first runner-up is Mr. Pistons Leather from Long Beach, a short, squat, doughy guy who wore what appeared to be nothing but a few strands of yarn during the physique competition. I gather up my coat and notebook and prepare to make a dash for the door.

And the winner is…Kevin. My Kevin. Kevin-Marie. The mother in me gives birth to quintuplets. Kevin stands motionless for a moment, then staggers downstage, bewildered. He jumps up and down and shakes his head back and forth, as if trying to get water out of his ears, before Joe Gallagher, last year’s Mr. International Leather, places a gold medal around his neck. By the time I make it down to the main floor and climb over the VIP tables to get onto the stage, Kevin is surrounded by a sea of photographers. From atop his pedestal he beams with such radiance I fear he will combust. I squirm my way to the front, catch his eye, and shout, “How is it up there?”

He looks my way and smiles. “I don’t even know where I am.” Then he places his hand just below his navel, extends the other over his head, and gives me my own personal pelvic thrust.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mr. L.U.R.E., Kevin Cwayna, Mr. Pistons Leather photos by Cynthia Howe.