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International Mr. Leather arrives in Chicago

by Joseph Erbentraut
Contributor
Wednesday May 20, 2009
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After surviving a long, cold winter, kinky Chicagoans have finally gotten what they have been waiting for--the 31st annual International Mr. Leather contest at the Chicago Hilton this Memorial Day weekend.

IML, which shares the weekend with Chicago’s Bear Pride, has grown exponentially in recent years. It began modestly when 400 leather lovers gathered at the Radisson in 1979. This year’s event, which kicks-off tomorrow, is expected to attract 15,000 leathermen and leatherwomen from all over the United States and the world to the Windy City. Fifty competitors will compete for the coveted title of International Mr. Leather.

The event holds additional significance beyond the contest itself. The weekend’s schedule is packed with innumerable smaller events that range from recovery meetings to cocktail hours. It will also feature the Leather Market, an expo of sorts featuring dozens of vendors from around the country. The Chicago Hilton will host all the events.

The weekend also serves as a fundraiser, particularly for Chicago’s own Leather Archives and Museum. According to Andrea Gerson, the museum’s director of development, proceeds from the weekend are instrumental to offset the museum’s operating costs. The LAM will host a silent auction on Friday that will feature a variety of original artwork.

"IML gives all these people the opportunity to see leather history, with people coming from all over," Gerson said. "The museum is the only museum of its type in the world, and we get a large amount of our funding through these individual memberships."

"[IML] is a celebration of the leather lifestyle."

And of course, the weekend is also rife with a number of larger parties. These culminate in the Black and Blue Ball at Excalibur Nightclub on Monday night.

Perhaps more important than all of the details of who wins the title or the location of the next party is the visibility granted by the annual event, which has become an international tradition for the leather community and the curious. In recent years, IML has taken steps to make the event accessible to more novice visitors, a step which has not gone without some degree of criticism.

"Society in general is having a major effect on the gay leather subculture and IML reflects that," Jack Rinella, who has written Gay Chicago Magazine’s weekly Leather Views column for the past 16 years, explained. "It used to be that gay leather men were a world in and of themselves existing in a nice, comfortable subculture, but that world is being blown apart by the Internet, cyber communications and the phenomenal growth of heterosexual and pansexual events."

The fact remains, however that at the core, IML is, as Rinella put it, "hot and fun... a great party."

"[IML] is a celebration of the leather lifestyle," Gerson added. "I hope that it opens up peoples’ eyes to see that everyone has their interests and this is just one of them. We’re a universal group coming together for one weekend to celebrate the essence of our community, what could be better than that?"

Log onto www.imrl.com for a full schedule of IML events.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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