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What it means to be a titleholder

COMPETITIVE SPIRIT. A leather titleholder may be called upon to be an advocate, an ambassador, a spokesperson and a fundraiser — skills that won't necessarily coincide with the best ass, though that certainly doesn't hurt. Credit: Ajay Bikram Thapa

With Mr Leatherman Toronto (MLT) Weekend just around the corner kinky folk across the city and from afar are gearing up for the annual competition that will see a new titleholder welcomed into the ranks. But is it just an excuse for a series of parties or is all the talk of brotherhood the real deal? What purpose does a title serve and what’s expected from those they’re bestowed upon?

“Not having rowed myself I can only imagine that a titleholder is like the guy sitting in a rowboat yelling at the other guys to push the oars faster,” says Robert Tomas, MLT 1997 and now president of the MLT board. “However it’s a little more complex than that because I think titleholders are usually the hardest-working members of MLT.

“What is expected varies from community to community,” says International Mr Leather (IML) 1979 David Kloss, cohost of this year’s contest. “Some titles, yes, you can say it is looking for the most attractive person to represent their community — for example they may be representing an ad campaign or the face of the community. For others it has to do with how they can work within their own community to help further other causes.”

Although expectations differ from title to title, being visibly engaged in the local kink scene and making himself available to his constituents are a big part of a titleholder’s duties.

“He’s representing their concerns and their needs,” says MLT 2004 Remi Collette. “He’s basically there to be a friend to the community and that means everybody, not just the hot, sexy guys but the whole community.”

“We’ve been very present in the community,” says MLT 2008 Matt Pavelich of this year’s three MLT titleholders — Pavelich, Mr Leather Fellowship Laurence Heath and Bootblack Toronto Jack Pearce. “I’ve tested everything from rubber to sports. I’ve hung out with the old guard leathermen and I’ve hung out with the kids.”

But being front and centre can also mean you’re the one catching the shit. “The titleholder is the lightning rod for all the complaints,” says Tomas, “so if there is anything wrong he is the first one to hear about it… and that’s part of the job.”

“I can go to a party that MLT’s sponsoring and wear the title vest and everyone decides I’m the one to complain about the DJ to,” says Pavelich with a laugh.

Titleholders also represent the local leather scene within in their city and beyond.

“No matter where they go in the world, no matter who they’re speaking with… the moment you achieve that title you are an ambassador,” says Ms Black Eagle 2001 and former MLT board member Penny Gyokeres. “You’re accountable to the people who made you titleholder. Not just the institution or the organization that brought you into that titleship, but the community itself.”

“It’s being a liaison between the GLBT community, the BDSM community and the straight community,” says Richard Hubley, Mr Leather Ottawa 2008. “There are times when it’s not easy but there are times that it’s great. A lot of times groups will ask for you to go and speak and other times people will just talk to you on the street or at the bars. Pride is a really busy time ’cause everyone sees your vest and asks questions.”

Fundraising is also a key responsibility for most titleholders, including MLT, which is a not-for-profit corporation with a foundation arm.

“Mr Leatherman Toronto, whoever wins that title, he is expected to choose a charity for the year and to do multiple fundraisers all year long and raise as much money as they can,” says Collette. “They’ve raised as much as $20-some thousand in one year for their charity of choice.”

In addition to raising money for worthy causes, the fundraising aspect can often help to offer folks outside the leather scene a way to connect to the titleholders and to leather events even if they’re squeamish about kink itself.

This year’s titleholder team set out with a goal to raise $15,000 for the AIDS Committee of Toronto. “We’re pretty darn close,” says Pavelich.

“Some people, even within the queer community, understand the charitable fundraising role and that’s what they kind of latch onto,” says Pavelich. “They don’t want to think that maybe I might like spanking in the bedroom but they can latch on to the fundraising.”

A titleholder may also be called upon to represent his or her city on the sash circuit and to compete at higher-level events, like IML in Chicago. In October, Pearce took the title of International Community Bootblack 2008 during the International LeatherSir/Leatherboy Weekend in San Francisco.

“It’s very exhausting because it involves a lot of travel,” says Tomas, “and even though MLT has a travel fund it usually is limited just to the travel to International Mr Leather competition where Toronto is represented. Most of the other travel, to the US and internationally, is financed from their own pockets. So those guys are not making any money being titleholders that’s for sure.”

“I’ve gone to Ottawa, Montreal, Windsor, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Oklahoma City and I’ve left out a few,” says Pavelich, “and I’ve been able to tell them about all the blessings we have here in Toronto. I’ve had to brush up on gay marriage, gay divorce, the club scene and the bathhouse scene because when I go out of town I get asked.”

In addition titleholders can use the limelight to advance causes that are important to them personally.

“We chose to take the little bit of notoriety we did get from being titleholders and we became very political,” says Collette, referring to himself and partner Kloss. The couple was one of the first international same-sex couples — Kloss is from the US — to get married in Toronto and they’ve given numerous interviews on the subjects of same-sex marriage and immigration.

For Hubley, who uses a wheelchair after being injured in a motorcycle accident, the platform was a chance to encourage others to test their limits regardless of what they’ve been told those limits are.

“When I spoke onstage at IML I talked about the accident and told them, ‘Don’t listen when people tell you what you can or cannot do.’ [My doctors] told me I couldn’t do a lot, I wouldn’t do a lot, but I was able to. It took a lot out of me but I was a member of the Paralympics sledge hockey team for two years. I represented the country for two Paralymic games.

“So my message was don’t underestimate yourself, just go and try. You might fail but you never know if you’ll succeed unless you do it.”

A titleholder can also be a catalyst for change in the community, sparking a new event or a new way of doing things — like the now-annual Tighty Whitey Carwash first organized by Mr Steamworks 2007 Peter Rex.

“Being Mr Leatherman Toronto really taught me that if you approach the people they will come together very readily,” says Tomas. “As a community, however fragmented we are, however we go in our own direction and times have changed obviously and everything else but still the right catalyst brings people together.”

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The road to becoming a titleholder can be long and involved. In Toronto local bars, clubs and organizations often run their own contests to determine who will represent them in the MLT contest, or choose to appoint a candidate. These men — all titleholders in their own right — then undergo a series of trials during MLT weekend on which they’re judged by a panel of leather notables. Although the contest doesn’t technically begin until the Saturday of MLT Weekend, Collette, who has judged multiple competitions, says the judges are watching competitors from the moment the weekend begins.

“We have a meet and greet… and there’s also a cocktail party and at those two events the judges are watching all the contestants socializing in a room full of people,” says Collette. “They’re watching to see who’s approachable, who’s really outgoing and goes out and introduces themselves to other people and who stands in the corner and waits for everyone to come to them.”

The formal judging begins with a private interview. “You go in as a single person facing a panel of judges and the judges will ask you questions one after another,” says Kloss. “Those questions will come from whatever direction their mindset is. It could be that they’re steeped in the idea that you should know history or steeped in the idea that maybe you should know various different aspects of the fetish community. They want to know your history, they want to know why you’re running for it, what is your ultimate reasoning behind it.”

On Saturday night in front of an audience of hundreds, if not thousands, competitors are judged in a formal leatherwear component, in which each competitor is posed with a question that shows how well they think on their feet — a skill that’s invaluable in a titleholder, says Collette.

“You’re at a big social event and they recognize, ‘Oh Mr Leather is here. Come up and say a few words.’ You’re on the spot a lot so you’ve got to be comfortable on stage, you’ve got to be comfortable in that space with everyone’s eyes on you.”

Competitors are also judged in a minimal leatherwear component. “This is where we’re different than a beauty contest,” says Collette. “The judges are not just looking at, ‘Oh, he’s got the best tits, he’s got the best ass.’ No, they’re looking also at his comfort zone. How comfortable is he in his own skin? How comfortable is he to be displayed in front of everybody with next to nothing on? How is he holding himself? That’s what they’re looking. So it’s not just about the prettiest guy on stage. We’re looking at who’s the most confident, the most self-aware and comfortable as a person.”

During the minimal wear component competitors each get 90 seconds to address the judges and the crowd.

“This also allows you to say, ‘Okay, I have to impress the judges and the crowd, and the crowd has a bar right over there. How am I going to keep them interested in what I’m saying and how am I going to keep the judges from saying, “Is 90 seconds over yet?”‘” says Kloss. “We always tell people don’t memorize the speech because if you miss a certain word you’re stuck and you look like a deer caught in the headlights.”

Oftentimes the audience’s favourite isn’t the man who winds up with the sash at the end of the night.

“The crowd doesn’t always understand why Mr Leatherman isn’t the prettiest guy on the stage,” says Collette. “The crowd hasn’t sat through the interview, they didn’t get to know the competitors intimately the way the judges did… so the crowd doesn’t always agree.”

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When you consider all the work that goes into being a titleholder, the contest may just be the easy part.”

“When the person wins it’s a big thing and I relate to their exuberance upon winning, their elation,” says Kloss. “I feel very proud for them, and the next thing is to see what they do with it.”

Collette says that not everyone realizes going into the competition just how much work is expected from a titleholder.

“If you’re doing it because you want popularity and you want to be in the A crowd and all that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and you’ll be sorely disappointed,” says Collette. “Being a leather titleholder is basically being a servant to the community for an entire year. Your weekends, several nights through the week, you’re booked and generally called on to volunteer your time, to work in community at all the different fundraisers.

“So, yes, people are recognizing you, yes, you’re being invited to all these events, but you’re going there generally to work and to represent your community. It’s very much a position of service.”

“This has been the most significant relationship in my last year,” says Pavelich. “I have performed less at work. Friendships are very important to me but they’ve suffered at times throughout the year. So work, family, friends, all of these things have been put on the backburner at times for the sake of title.”

Even when you are out with friends or lovers you may still be called upon to respond as a titleholder. “It’s what you say when you’re out there talking to people out in the bar at 2:30am,” says Gyokeres, “and it doesn’t matter how many drinks you’ve had in you or how many tricks you’re planning on bringing home someone you don’t know comes up to you and says, ‘I have this idea’… and you’re on. They’re a member of the community and you have to respond to their concerns.”

It’s no wonder that the partners of titleholders are sometimes called sash widows.

“Widows are the guys who are stuck at home while the titleholding partner is going from contest to contest or from fundraiser to fundraiser,” says Tomas. “It definitely puts strains on some relationships.”

The attention that titleholders get can also be cause for jealousy, even if it isn’t always something the titleholder is looking for.

“There are moments when you become like public property,” says Pavelich, adding that although he’s affectionate by nature there have been moments in the course of his title year when the attention has been more than he was comfortable with.

“It took me the better part of the title year to finally figure out how to avoid unwanted touching,” he says. “There are people that, once you have the stole on or the title vest on, they think they can put your tongue down your throat.”

At the same time Pavelich says he’s made a point of keeping sexuality front and centre during his title year.

“I’ve been spanked, I’ve been flogged, I’ve had clothespins [pinned on my nipples], I’ve had boots on my balls, I’ve been tied up. I’d never done full bondage and I did full bondage for the first time onstage.

“We have to bring sexuality and playfulness back into this. It cannot be put a dollar in the box and be healed like a bunch of church ladies. Who the fuck wants to join a church lady organization? People want to get laid, they want to dance, they want to have a few drinks, they want to party. This needs to be about sexuality and about fun or no one is going to join this movement.

“It cannot be this… puritanical kind of sexless titleholder who can’t be seen on his knees giving a blowjob in his title vest.”

Keeping things fun and sexy may also help to coax leatherfolk away from the internet and back to the bars for their hookups.

“The internet definitely had changed the community,” says Tomas. “MLT steadily was being eroded by the fact that fewer and fewer people felt interest in going out in leather and hooking up in leather bars.”

“We’ve tried to do novel things to entice people away from their computers and to interact,” says Pavelich, adding that some of this year’s more inventive fundraising initiatives included a clothes pin night, where for a toonie you could pin a clothes pin on Pavelich’s nipples, and a boot ball night “where three of us wore kilts and ball parachutes and hooked up a pair of boots to them and Jack was bootblacking and Laurence and I and one of the new class Mr Firkin 2009 Corey Breau went around collecting coinage… to make a weight, you know cock and ball torture. We tried to really keep it interactive.

“It’s kind of interesting for future titleholders to consciously think of that, about filling the bars, filing the clubs, about people having meaningful social interactions.”

All in all, Pavelich says the experience of being a titleholder can be extremely energizing.

“One of the things that I found was a whole lot of kinship and fraternity,” he says. “The men I ran with last year have stuck by me the entire year so every event… one of my classmates if not all of them have been there.

“The three of us — Laurence, Jack and I — committed to being very accessible, but when you’re accessible you risk and there are moments when you do get hurt. However over the course of the year I’ve learned to react with grace and a little dignity in the face of both good and bad things and I’ve been richly rewarded.”