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. Edited and updated with permission by Pat Baillie, Board President, IMsL Foundation.


Generation 1

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, Jim 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, Jim 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.

Generation 2

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 Leatherwoman 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.

Generation 3

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 remained at that location until 2013. 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. Levi retired as a producer after the 2010 event, IMsL ran with three Producers in 2011 and 2012. The 25th Anniversary of the International Ms Leather Contest in 2011 featured the creation of a video titled Sisterhood of the Sash which included interviews and panels with 16 previous IMsLs returning to San Francisco to tell their stories and celebrated a quarter of a century of Leatherwoman history. (link here to movie and IMsL History page).

After the 2012 contestant, another long time staff member who had been the lead in registration and marketing, Sharrin Spector joined the Producers to make a fourth. Sharrin brought major renovations to media, marketing, registration and worked on adding new events to the weekend.  With the four producers and the continued support of an amazing volunteer staff that works year round, the contest grew and attendance by 2013 neared 800. Contestants over the years with Glenda in San Francisco hailed from the United States, Canada and Australia. In 2013, the 8 bootblacks returned and were able to celebrate the 15thAnnual International Ms Bootblack and began work on their documentary video entitled High Shine.

Generation 4

After the 2013 contest, tomo, Ms Rhonda and Sharrin felt they needed to step down as Producers as financial issues involving Glenda came to light.  Glenda decided she needed to sell IMsL as a result and had several offers from the community to buy the event.  She decided to offer the IMsL event to Sharrin Spector, businesswoman and former producer of PowerSurge,  and pat Baillie, IMsL 1995 and former producer of Rio Grande Leather in New Mexico.  Sharrin had already been recognized for event production and eye on continuous improvement with IMsL as part of the staff.  She brought her improvements to IMsL registration and marketing to the table with a plan to make IMsL a celebration of Leatherwoman from around the world.  Pat brings her insights and expertise as an IMsL as well as her passion for the event.  The cost of the sale was $1, a nod to the first sale of IMsL to Amy Marie from the San Francisco Board going from Generation 1 to Generation 2. The agreement included that none of the debt or financial obligations from Generation 3 would transfer in the sale. Generation 4 started off with no debt and no funds in the bank.  The sale was completed in September 2013.  In looking at the business case, Sharrin created IMsL Production, LLC which would produce the weekend event and contest.

Pat would create a 501(c)3 organization called the IMsL Foundation which would work on the titleholder travel fund, education and historical aspects of the event.  In February 2014, the IMsL Foundation was incorporated as a California non-profit corporation.  An interim board was formed to set up the organization which included  Spencer Bergstedt, IMsL 1994, Sara Vibes, IMsL 2011, Hardy Haberman, Woodhull board member , Marlene Hoeber from the Center of Sex & Culture.  Sahra, IMsL 2013 and Bella, IMsBB 2013 were invited to join the board as interim members during the IMsL weekend in April 2014.  Additionally, so that the IMsL Foundation could provide tax deductible recognition at IMsL 2014,   an agreement with the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco to be the  fiscal sponsor was completed in April 2014.  The IMsL Foundation held it first interim board meeting on the Saturday of IMsL 2014, April 26.

The other major change in 2014 was the movement of the event to the Doubletree by Hilton in San Jose.  Due to construction and changes in the hotel ownership at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco, Glenda had negotiated a contract to move to San Jose for IMsL 2014. The first Generation 4 contest was held April 24-27 with 7 IMsL Contestants and 2 IMsBB contestants with over 700 in attendance.  The winners were:  IMsL 2014, Patty from Toronto and IMsBB 2014, Dara Bryant from Portland.  You can follow them on the website and on the Facebook pages.

In just 9 months, with a new location, Generation 4 had positive evaluations and welcomed in the next generation and made a small profit on the event with all the bills paid! During this first year, the issues of racism in the leather community came to the forefront with the theme of “Locked & Loaded” and the tshirt design for the year.  The ensuing community dialogue spurred the need for the IMsL/IMsBB Weekend and the IMsL Foundation to do more around the “-isms” in the community. The 2015 post survey showed that three groups were underrepresented at the weekend so Liaison positions were created to join the year round planning staff to increase awareness and programming.  People of Color, Trans Women and Under 35 Liaison joined the staff and supported the selection of workshops and scholarships as well as educated the entire staff on issues and changes needed.  In 2016, the “-isms” panel and the creation of guiding principles in the form of a guide extended the discussion.  For 2017, a Disability Liaison was added to continue the work. The workshop selection review committee was expanded to include IMsL Foundation Board members as well as the education committee, IMsL Productions Executive Producer and Liaisons. Over the last two years, the IMsL Foundation has also provided grants to new or re-emerging women’s events and spent 2016 digitizing the last 30 years of IMsL/IMsBB Weekend programs and history for the anniversary in 2016.  We are now in the process of building momentum to 2018 and the 20th Anniversary of the IMsBB contest.

What is an IMsL Weekend all about?

Besides the contest, IMsL continues to evolve as producers change but at the heart of the event is the building a community of Leatherwoman, kinksters, sex geeks, sex positive and empowered women (and those who love them including the growing men of IMsL attendees).  The weekend runs now runs from Thursday through Sunday night, providing an extended weekend to meet, cruise, and play.  It takes a staff of 20 and roughly 100 volunteers their time during the weekend itself to run the stage crew, support security and registration, and make sure the weekend happens. The IMsL weekend is about the opportunity to meet and join with others in 24 hour a day on-site play spaces, in classrooms to learn or hone skills and knowledge, and through networking events and hospitality parties.  It is the largest gathering of Leatherwoman but surprisingly, our “men of IMsL” attend to support the event and enjoy the play and the energy of the weekend. If you would like to learn more about the previous IMsL/IMsBB titleholders.

To learn more about the weekend see the events section on the IMsL website (www.imsl.org ) and check out the schedule.  The weekend starts Thursday night with “Seduction”, a hot show with burlesque and strip performances.  In 2015, the IMsBB contest technical boot portion of the contest will be held during the Queer Happy Hour reception before Seduction so you can cheer on your favorite contestant.  Learn more about bootblacking and leather care and enjoy some personal attention from our celebrity guest bootblacks during the reception and show!  The play space opens on Thursday night and is open from 9am to until 3am.  Check out the open play space as well as the men and women space all weekend long!

Friday includes intensive workshops and a lunch panel on a key issue facing the women’s leather community, the opening of the vendor area and the chance to bid on the silent auction items. Friday night is also the chance to see everyone and meet the contestants during the Opening show.  The focal point of the weekend remains the contest itself. The individuals who have held the title of IMsL and IMsBB are a powerful and diverse group. Together, they span a variety of ages, races and ethnicity, sexual orientations and gender identities. They come from all over the world. 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.

In between contest interviews and workshops, you can visit the Bootblack Lounge, set up play dates in the play space, and attend the Hospitality parties that run all weekend.  See the finale to the Contest with hot fantasies on Saturday night as the new IMsL/IMsBB titles are announced.

Sunday starts with brunch and our keynote speaker but don’t check out early.  Events on Sunday include workshops, pool party and bawdy storytelling and that last chance to enjoy the playspace!  The event is accessible and provides daily recovery meetings.  Clubs and organizations come together to produce receptions and show off their colors.

One of the key components of the event is the fundraising for the IMsL/IMsBB titleholders and supporting the preservation of our Leatherwoman history.  The IMsL Foundation benefits from fundraising over the weekend and provides more  fun.  Ways to get involved are to tip the performers at Seduction and purchase silent auction gifts from contestant baskets and contributions.  The titleholders travel around the world during their title year and act as representatives offering peer education, support for community events as a judge or MC and to promote IMsL/IMsBB weekend.  Titleholders are also there to speak out for the causes they believe in. Besides North America, Generation 4 titleholders have been to travel throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa.  IMsL over the years has been recognized by the community through the Pantheon of Leather awards and been honored with proclamations from the City of San Francisco and the California State Assembly and State Senate. In 2016, the IMsL Foundation was also recognized as the Pantheon of Leather Non-Profit of the Year. IMSL/IMsBB weekend continues to grow each year and is a vital part of the women’s Leather community. Please join us!