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Murray Lavigne is a knight in leather armour

Going beyond the fantasy of Ottawa leathermen culture

Murray Lavigne is not the kind of man that one would mistake for Santa Claus. He has a lean build with a nearly shaved head that matches his trim salt-and-pepper mustache. But, more than the fact that he lacks girth and flowing curly white locks, Lavigne is known in his community for his tight leather pants and his black-and-red leather jacket, emblazoned with a stylized knight chess piece within a rook — the emblem of an Ottawa Knight leatherman.

This is a far cry from jolly old St Nick’s red velvet jogging suit. But, despite the glaring difference, Lavigne and the iconic fat patriarch of abundance have one thing in common: they head up clubs that enjoy giving toys to tots at Christmas.

At first glance, it really does seem incongruous that men dressed like bikers — sometimes sporting spiked collars, whips, chains and leashes — would hold a toy drive. One expects leathermen to be sneering bad boys in skin-hugging jeans and spit-shined black boots, their eyes smouldering only for each other in the wee hours at private, smoky bars.

But that kind of dark fantasy clashes with the down-to-earth reality of these men, who are collecting boxes of goodies for children living in poverty.

The Ottawa Knights, a leather and denim club, is going on 35 years in operation. While their championing of wild sexuality can be seen in the annual Mr Leather Ottawa competition and the themed nights they hold at the leather bar Cell-Block, their dedication to order, honour and social awareness is evidenced by their extensive charity work with more than half a dozen organizations, like the AIDS Committee of Ottawa and Bruce House. These consistent and long-standing community outreach efforts earned them a 2010 Capital Xtra Hero Award nomination.

It goes to show that leather culture is more than just an air of dangerous sex and gruff masculinity à la Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Most leather communities are built on solidarity, respect and caring, seeking to educate and contribute to mainstream society. Like the Ottawa Knights, of which Murray Lavigne is a part.

“It is the responsibility of a true leatherman to dispel perceived negativity and provide the true meaning of a caring and loving leather/kink relationship,” Lavigne explains. “Charity work has helped to elevate the understanding of the leather lifestyle by meeting and talking to people who only knew what they read or were told by others who were not necessarily experts in the leather scene.”

Before Lavigne began his journey of kink and Knighthood, he had to endure the rather boring life of a teenaged boy in a small Canadian city. Born in 1956 in the heart of the Ottawa Valley, aka Pembroke, Ontario — “a place virtually devoid of gay life” — Murray Lavigne struggled to find a sense of belonging and sexual freedom.

“I had to make every effort to subdue my gayness,” Lavigne recalls.

Trips to Ottawa bars filled with other gay men provided some relief, which eventually resulted in Lavigne moving to Ottawa at the age of 21. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s, when Lavigne’s first hesitant, shy steps towards Bud’s (a now-defunct Montreal leather bar on Stanley Street) would lead him to become the Knight he is today.

“A man clad in full leather greeted me at the door [of Bud’s], and so I began chatting with him and with other patrons there and soon discovered that they were not so unlike myself.”

Nearly a decade passed before Lavigne attended his first Ottawa Knights meeting, which further informed him about the meaning and look of the leather lifestyle.

“In 1991, I pledged with the Ottawa Knights and I have been a member since that time.”

Once he became a full-fledged Ottawa Knight, Lavigne visited other North American leather clubs in an effort to expand his knowledge of the communities, and of BDSM. He was subsequently introduced to the concepts of “Old Guard” and “New Guard” — controversial labels expressing the occasionally clashing tenets of order (found in Master/slave and militaristic rank-based relationships) and wildness (typified in the over-sexed “outsider” stereotype) that help make up the BDSM and leather lifestyles.

Lavigne, like many other leathermen, opted for a healthy mix of Old Guard rules, etiquette and respect and New Guard sexual expression and exploration.

“I have learned to understand both and have tried to incorporate both [in] what I now call simply ‘Guard’ — both in my personal life and [in] that of the Ottawa Knights.”

“The Ottawa Knights have been a huge part of my life because through my involvement with the club, I have become more understanding and compassionate,” Lavigne declares. “Being a leatherman for me is much more about what you believe and feel in your heart. It is about sharing your life with others who need to feel connected to their leather image and being comfortable in that image.”

Whether or not that leather image falls on the kinky, reckless, dark side or that of gift-giving Knighthood, one thing’s for certain: to Murray Lavigne, being a leatherman requires following one’s passionate, playful heart.