When the Ottawa Knights light up the stage for Mr Leather Ottawa (MLO) 2006, they will celebrate their 30th anniversary with a full roster of contestants and, in the midst of controversy, continue a long history of leather subculture in the queer community.
Organizers have their hands full this year. The Knights made a controversial decision in 2001 to drop drag queens from the bill and this year are strictly enforcing the policy (see sidebar).
And in the event itself, seven contestants — aged 30 to 50, hailing from civil service, high tech and private industry backgrounds — are competing to be Mr Leather Ottawa. Organizers last saw this many competitors in 1999, when Dean Ross handed over the belt to Howard Hao.
What other surprises can audiences expect? Jean-Francois Pinsonnault, president and stage manager, is tight-lipped.
“Yeah” Pinsonnault says, laughing maniacally. “It’s going to be interesting. People will not be used to it. Part of this year’s theme is the uncloaking of the leather world. It’s cloak and dagger. There will be a playful use of the triple X.”
Whatever happens, viewers can expect the usual well-organized, two-hour show that MLO is known for, pitting contestants against each other to become Ottawa’s leather ambassador. Last year, the event drew an audience of over 600 — 15 percent of them women — at the Capital Music Hall, a move from Barrymore’s to accommodate the growing audience.
Today’s large event is a far cry from the beginning of Ottawa’s leather scene in the 1970s.
“If you had any interest in the leather community and wanted to meet people, you would go to Bud’s in Montreal,” remembers Murray Lavigne, executive producer of MLO. Leather lovers also travelled as far as New York and San Francisco to get their fix. On a return trip from Montreal, some leather men decided to start their own club.
“In the summer of 1975, the Ottawa Knights were born,” Lavigne says. “They were a western club. They evolved into a leather club about five years after that because people joining the club were more into leather than into denim.”
They organized the first Mr Leather Ottawa-Hull in 1992, changing it to Mr Leather Ottawa in 2003.
But while the Knights are turning 30, the idea of leather as a sexual fetish grew out of even older trends.
“It started with the icons of Errol Flynn in the leather pants, Zorro, and the leather paratroopers,” says Shawn Carroll, current titleholder. He also won Mr Cell Block 2005 and Canadian Leather 2005. “Then in the 1950s you had the leather jackets, the bikers — all very strong, sexual male images.”
The subculture of leather came on in the 1950s, after the end of the second world war, aided greatly by the advent of the motorcycle lifestyle and images of Marlon Brando in leather on a bike. Leather clubs formed. You got invited if you were wearing leather and in the right place at the right time. During that era, erotic Tom of Finland cartoons depicted exaggerated, buff and well-endowed men sometimes dressed in leather apparel. Past titleholder Douglas Connors points to that post-war era.
“When a lot of people came back to their regular lives, they missed that camaraderie, order and discipline,” Connors says. “A lot of the [leather look] comes from the military and keeps getting updated. Hence, you get old guard and new guard, and some people even say now ‘no guard.'”
In the 1970s, Connors says the clone look emerged.
“Your basic leather apparel was your tight blue jeans, white tee-shirt, black leather vest,” Connors says. “That was your badge.”
And despite its more mainstream popularity today, sporting leather can still mean something different to the attentive queer eye.
“Some wear it because they’re going to a leather-theme circuit party and want to fit in,” Connors says. “Some people just like the look. Others like the feel of it. You always have to double-check but it still very much is a code.”
This leather code binds together the Ottawa Knights, as Connors knows. On a summer night, when he was 16, Connors stepped into Centretown Pub and saw two tall, handsome, broad-shouldered, leather-wearing men leaning at the bar. From that moment on, he knew he loved men in leather.
Lavigne thinks leather endured as a subculture because it speaks to those fetishes.
“Vanilla sex wasn’t exciting anymore,” Lavigne says. “Leather sex or SM, or whatever term you would like to call it, was much more of a risky, unacceptable tradition which intrigued a lot of people. And it just doesn’t want to fit in the norm of society, even within the gay community.”
Carroll sees another reason for leather’s endurance.
“Leather is a sign of strength, masculinity,” Carroll says. “It’s something I think a lot of gay men search to reaffirm because it is taken away from us in the media and by the straight community – that [because] we’re gay, we’re all automatically effeminate.”
When asked how the Knights in particular have lasted 30 years, everyone replies using the same word — camaraderie.
“They’ve stayed true to their vision,” says Carroll. “A brotherhood of like-minded men. When you have that much devotion in your founding members as well, it’s just bound to last, when other clubs come and go.”
Pinsonnault also notes that the Knights do extensive charity work, not only for the queer community, but for the community at large, in organizing fundraisers for the Children’s Aid Society, Special Olympics Ontario and Bruce House.
That charitable emphasis of the Knights has been there from the beginning. In 1979, the Knights began Toys For Tots, a fundraiser to help less fortunate children in the Ottawa area. Last year, the Knights raised $2,400 for the charity.
Pinsonnault has been involved in the production aspect of MLO for five years, and says that fund-raising for charity is a major factor.
“It’s a way for us to say, ‘Okay, we can get together, still have a good time, but we also know that at the end of the night, whatever profits from tips and from coats goes into the pot and eventually will make it to one or another charitable organization that we support.'”
While the proceeds of last year’s MLO went to the AIDS Committee Of Ottawa, Carroll has chosen Jer’s Vision, the Jeremy Dias queer scholarship fund, as the recipient of this year’s profits.