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.