By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor
New leaders in leather community look to future of inclusion and accessibility
The leather community has always been many things to many people, not only within our greater LGBT community, but even those beyond; and it hasn’t always been positive.
Local activists and partners, in both business and life, Buster Adams and AJ Turner, are planning to up the ante and expand what the leather community means to everyone.
As we go to press, we are in the midst of the San Diego Leather Pride 2017 festivities, which kicked off Wednesday, March 15. They are the culmination of many months of planning and preparations to make them more inclusive and accessible than ever before.
San Diego is currently playing host to visitors from all over the country, as local leaders prepare to crown the region’s new titleholders — the 35th Mr San Diego Leather, the 23rd Ms. San Diego Leather and the third San Diego Bootblack — on Saturday, March 18, from 6–10 p.m. at the World Beat Cultural Center, located at 2100 Park Blvd. Free parking is available across the street at the Veterans War Memorial.
Helping to oversee the festivities are the reigning 2016 titleholders: Jay Heimbach, Mr. San Diego Leather; Jae Marie, Ms. San Diego Leather; and Eric Audet, San Diego Bootblack.
This year’s contestants are Nathan Kendrick for Mr. San Diego Leather; Tamanava Eden-McLintock for Ms. San Diego Leather; and both Red, and Jake Ott, are running for the San Diego Bootblack title. During the coming year the new titleholders, Adams said, will focus on areas such as LGBT homelessness; safety in our bars in a post-Orlando world; and community involvement.
The seven-person judges panel for this year’s Leather titles contest includes current and past Mr. and Ms. titleholders, both regional and international, and a three-person panel — including two local judges, Annette Suarez (Ms. San Diego Leather 2015) and Duff Roberts — to oversee the Bootblack competition. To learn more about the judges, visit tinyurl.com/kht4shs.
The title contest on Saturday is the main event in five full days of festivities organized by San Diego Leather Pride, a 501(c)(7) nonprofit run by Adams and Turner. The fifth owners/producers since San Diego Leather Pride’s inception, they took over the organization last July and have integrated a lot of subtle — and not so subtle — changes to make it more appealing to the masses.
Leather Fetish Ball
Former Imperial Court Emperor Robert Rodriguez, also known for his Divas night at Rich’s Nightclub every other Friday, is also founder of the fourth annual Leather Fetish Ball, which will take place Friday, March 17, at the World Beat Cultural Center from 9 p.m.–1 a.m. While independently produced by Rodriquez, Adams and Turner have decided to collaborate with Rodriguez this year, making this fascinating night of leather, dance and surprise one of the many diverse events offered throughout the weekend.
The former Mr. San Diego Latin Leather said he had doubters in the beginning, but his event has continued to grow each year. Rodriquez said he took queues from the Imperial Court and some old-school leather community events and combined it all together to create a ball that is open to everyone.
“This is an event where you dress in your gear, your leather — if you wanna wear shorts or jeans or whatever — but you come out and meet other folks, whether they are straight, gay, bi, transgender, or people who don’t want to be identified as anything specific, and meet others who share similarities,” Rodriquez said. “[I tell people] don’t have expectations. Explore. You can just sit there and watch. My very first event I got flooded with emails and text messages from people saying how wonderful it was and how they went home after and played with their partner.”
Turner said the experience involves something that everyone can relate to, goose bumps, chills and feelings of pleasure.
“You see somebody and you look at them and in your head they’ve turned on something in your brain that turns the temperature up in the right part of your body. Your neck, that little spot where you get butterflies … everybody has an attraction.”
Leather/kink/bdsm is really just about exploiting those basic attractions, Turner added.
“Essentially you come with an open mind and understand that your limits might be pushed,” Adams said. “If you are offended you can leave, that’s OK, we’re not there to offend you. Robb is organizing amazing entertainment, a lot of variety, a lot of things to stimulate and challenge in general.
“With this kind of buffet, it’s not about everything being for you, one thing may be for you and it might be that there is something on that buffet that you have never tried but it will become your favorite food,” Adams said.
For more information about the Leather Fetish Ball, visit tinyurl.com/glfuetz.
‘Fifth generation leather’
These two new leaders of San Diego Leather Pride are not new to the local community. Buster Adams was Mr. San Diego Leather 2006 and while he has been involved with the local organization ever since moving back to San Diego several years ago, his involvement in the overall leather community goes back nearly 20 years.
A former San Diego Leather Daddy titleholder, AJ Turner is also a founding sister of the local Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Sister Amanda Reckinwith; he was crowned Ruby Empress Ajax XL with the Imperial Court in 2012 and holds the title of Knight of Leather within the Court as well; and his first “persona” was in drag, as Lady Ajax, who has performed at and emceed many popular events over the years, including the annual wreath auction.
These two men have a wealth of history and experience behind them, which will undoubtedly help them bring the community into the future.
“We’re trying to introduce concepts that we’re calling ‘fifth generation leather’ because now in our modern world, there is so much diversity it’s very difficult to just pick one label with a capital letter to define someone,” Adams said. “We’re becoming more complex, we’re more verbose, we have a lot of buzzwords that we can use [to identify ourselves with] and each of us carves out our own space.”
Though the organization does have nonprofit status, the “7” deems it as a fraternal or “social” organization rather than a charitable one.
So while San Diego Leather Pride is affiliated with the locally-based Leather Foundation — which among its focuses works to support STD prevention and education, including hepatitis C — their main goal is to keep San Diego Leather Pride afloat, continue the annual title contests, and sponsor events throughout the year that allow them to promote their own mission, which is to raise awareness of and accessibility to the local leather community.
To some, the leather community in years past has been seen as isolationist, standoffish, exclusive and inaccessible, while others have even viewed it with caution and kept their distance. In contrast, some see the leather community today as what Adams described a “great umbrella for understanding,” a place that accepts everyone.
In this vein, Adams and Turner are marching forward and plan to shift the preconceived notions currently in place by embracing inclusiveness and diversity and making it more appealing to the masses. Their goal? To bring the entire LGBT community back together and make leather much more visible within that community, once again.
“When I was the titleholder in 2006, we still had the Ms. and the Mr. on separate weekends,” Adams said. “And I was one of the leather men who picked the side of ‘I’m not comfortable with [this].’ I was raised with a mother and a sister, and the idea of community service and equality was something that my mom really instilled in me. I think the irony is terrible that in general, in an oppressed minority culture, it is very common to create a pecking order; the people who end up at the bottom of the pecking order are sometimes drag queens, sometimes it’s women, sometimes it’s trans people, and sometimes it’s bisexual people, like myself.”
Adams then pointed to our community’s migration from “gay and lesbian” to our combined political identity as LGBT, and also said that many men forget just how devoted lesbians were to their brothers during the AIDs crisis, “when the men’s community was either dying or exhausted or was fighting for their lives.”
“I think it is dangerous when we are looking for equality and we perpetuate inequality,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the popular book and feature film, “50 Shades of Grey” has opened up the interests of many — both straight and gay — who would have otherwise never imagined making contact with the leather community, and rather than turn their backs on those people, Adams and Turner want to reach them, wherever they are.
“The leather community provides a place where you can find out how to safely engage in essentially dangerous things in an accessible way,” Adams said. “We want that to be part of our outreach. Why have all those classes if we are not teaching people? It’s not like the movie. Preconceived ideas keep people from being engaged and they don’t engage because they’re not sure how. We’d like to let people know who we are.”
Turner stressed the importance of getting the titleholders out on the street, giving them the tools and opportunity to share their personal experiences and the history and culture of the leather community.
“We’re recreating the organization to support people being able to go out 365 days a year in their leather and keep people coming in, asking questions and getting them to join,” he said.
There are big plans for the year ahead, starting with this weekend. Don’t be afraid to show up, learn more and maybe scratch that itch.
To find more info about the weekend’s events, visit sandiegoleatherpride.com.
—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.