Arts & Entertainment
6 min

Ottawa’s evolving leather and kink scene

Mindful of tradition and history, a ‘new guard’ of youth, women and trans people joins forces with the men in Ottawa’s welcoming and vibrant leather community

From left, Jon Letke, aka Nizzi Greatpup, Valerie Bishop and Karl Couture, aka Pup Rolph, are three young members of Ottawa’s leather community. Credit: Rémi Thériault

You could say that Ottawa is a city with two faces. On the one hand, it’s a government town full of public servants and politicians, giving it an air of bureaucratic nine-to-five respectability. This staid, official image probably goes a long way in contributing to the oft-repeated, tired trope that Ottawa doesn’t know how to have fun.

On the other hand, Ottawa is a city with a young and vital population and is rife with live shows and art festivals, board game nights and craft workshops. The city many of us inhabit is a vibrant, active place where there’s something happening every night. And with a burgeoning leather scene that boasts one of the biggest competitions in Canada, Mr Leather Ottawa (MLO), it’s clear that for many people when the ties come off, the hoods go on.

The leather community can trace its origins back to the 1940s and the Second World War, when the combination of all-male battalions living in close quarters and specialized militaristic gear gave rise to a new subculture. Today, that subculture includes other aspects of kink and fetish, including BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) play and the now iconic “biker” look. It also isn’t limited to men, with plenty of women and genderqueer folks getting in on the action. In Ottawa, the scene includes a growing number of young people in their 20s and 30s who are making it their own.

“I think there’s definitely a perception that the leather community is only for men, specifically middle-aged men,” says Valerie Bishop, 27, a relatively new face in the leather community who has become involved with the MLO organizing committee.

“Being a young female entering the leather community, the case can be stated that I am a double minority. With that said, I haven’t found that my gender has affected my reception at events I’ve been to, nor has it affected how my peers in the community see me . . . I have been treated as an equal, even though I am new to the scene and still learning so much from others,” Bishop says.

That willingness to learn is very much key when it comes to breaking into the leather community.

“There’s a misconception that the leather community isn’t welcoming of younger folks, but don’t believe it for a second,” says Jeremy Feist, who runs a meet-and-greet night in Toronto for people aged 19 to 35.

“I would, however, say to young people looking to get into the community that it is something of a meritocracy. You don’t get a medal just for showing up. If you’re willing to learn, help out where you can, and show due respect to others, that’ll go a lot further than any leather jockstrap or harness,” he says.

Like any community, the leather scene has had to move with the times, becoming more accommodating and making room for new faces.

“[The Ottawa leather scene] has changed tremendously,” says Pat Croteau, executive producer of MLO. “I’m actually very proud of how we’ve opened [MLO] up. We now welcome trans men to the competition, we welcome everybody to the event, and I think that’s the key to our success, and it’s something other events need to consider.”

The proof is clearly in the pudding — MLO is now in its 21st consecutive year, and in 2012, more than 600 people attended the stage show alone. Lack of interest is obviously not a problem the organizers have to contend with.

“You have to open yourself to people of different sexual orientations, different genders, different interests, so that you can have an event anybody is comfortable going to,” Croteau says.

Being open and accommodating is especially important in Ottawa, where the overall fetish scene is relatively small compared to bigger cities. People with all kinds of varied interests, from leather to puppy play to rubber and beyond, find themselves intermingling and overlapping at venues and events simply because the community isn’t large enough for groups to have their own dedicated spaces and gatherings.

“Ottawa, because of its size, is much smaller and more condensed,” says Jon Letke, 25, aka Nizzi Greatpup. A contestant for the MLO 2014 title, Letke is a relative newcomer to the city, having moved from Toronto in June.

“You get different groups and cliques within such a large city as Toronto, whereas here everything is much more compounded, and everyone has to get along at the same events,” he says.

These close quarters have encouraged an environment of respectful camaraderie in Ottawa’s fetish scene. “Probably the biggest common phrase in Ottawa is ‘Your kink might not be my kink, but it’s your kink and that’s fine,’” Letke says.

“Ottawa’s much more open in that regard,” adds Karl Couture, 29 (aka Pup Rolph), the outgoing 2013 title-holder. “You don’t have a strict cookie-cutter form; you can be whoever you are and still be able to represent.”

When he competed in 2012, Couture didn’t try to fit himself into the mould of what a leatherman is “supposed” to be. “I competed as myself. I didn’t dress the part to be someone I wasn’t; I dressed as who I was,” he says. “The community at large is very open in terms of who it accepts in.”

“It’s true that the community is predominantly males, but that in no way means women are not accepted or welcomed,” Bishop adds. “Personally, I’m hoping to work with our other younger members to be living examples for those wanting to get involved. You can be a younger person looking to find a sense of community. You can be a female, wanting to share her passion for leather. I’m hoping that by seeing people like myself, a young female member of the community, it will empower people to reach out and take that first step.”

To help things along, MLO and the Ottawa Knights, Ottawa’s main leather organization, are beginning to use social media as a way of reaching out. This allows them to be more targeted in their approach and circumvent more mainstream methods of advertising, which can sometimes be less effective, thanks to the popular misconception that the community is entirely sexual. As Letke and Couture explain, for many people the fetish community is primarily about camaraderie and connecting with others who share similar interests. The sexual component is present, but not for every individual.

MLO takes place over the weekend of Nov 8 to 10, with attendees mostly showing up on the Friday night to meet and mingle before things get into full swing on Saturday. Each year the event offers a number of workshops and seminars, taught by experts from the fetish and kink community.

“The workshops for us are at the heart of the event,” Croteau says. “People in this city have a real thirst to learn about sexuality and sexual topics.”

The workshops are changed up every year to cover a broader range of topics, but the mandate is always “safe, sane and consensual,” or RACK (risk-aware consensual kink).

“It’s one thing we worry about and we feel a responsibility to tell people. Go out, yes, and have fun and do all sorts of crazy stuff and enjoy yourself, but first understand how to do it safely,” Croteau says.

This year, workshops include talks on urethral sounding, navigating power-exchange relationships, and the always-controversial breath play. There will also be a used gear and clothing swap, the proceeds of which will benefit the Venus Envy Bursary Fund. And lest you make the assumption that the leather community is all rules and seriousness, one of the highlights of the weekend is a roast of the outgoing Mr Leather.

“I am not even sure [what to expect],” Couture says. “I know there’s a few people who have actually been contacting everybody and anyone who’s ever come into contact with me to try to find funny stories, so I have no idea what it’ll entail. I think it’ll just be a blast.”

Having a sense of humour is another important aspect of the leather community that tends to be overlooked.

“There are the times when it has to be serious, but the majority of the time it’s play, chilling with friends, just having fun,” Couture says. “And again, that’s what people will not see from the outside.”

A lot of the play that takes place is a way for people to relax and wind down. “It’s different for everybody, but everyone is just out looking to enjoy themselves after a hard day of work,” he explains.

For those who are interested in the scene but unsure of how to get involved, Couture has the following advice: “If you’re curious about it, find somebody or find a resource or group that can help you get into it . . . Get a group of friends who you know might be interested to support you. Go to the bar, go to the event, even if it’s just a matter of putting your toe in the water.”

With brunches, munches, bar nights and meets, as well as the MLO competition and events and a growing social media presence, there are plenty of ways to get familiar with the community and options for every type of interest and comfort level.

Whether you prefer bark or bite, the Ottawa leather scene clearly has something for everyone.