On the eve of Pride Cymru in Cardiff, Neil Mr. LeatherWest in making a call for leather men to stand proud, stand tall and help to build a leather community in Wales, relates a personal story of his very own leather journey and the need for every leather men to have an “authentic life”.
When I stood for election as Mr LeatherWest last year, I made much in my pitch about the importance of Leather men freeing themselves from the ‘apps’ and getting out there and meeting each other in person.
I also made a pledge to support my leather brothers in Wales and to raise the profile of our particular part of the kinkosphere. With Pride Cymru in Cardiff just days away, what has happened since? Is leather in Wales any better off than it was last year? And if not, what needs to happen for those pledges to be fulfilled before November’s UK Leather Pride event?
I was always thought myself as the outsider in the 2014/15 Mr LeatherWest election and no one was more surprised by the vote than me. It’s been an honour I have at times revelled in and at other times worn with reluctance. Why? I don’t exactly conform to the ‘Tom of Finland’ stereotype and because of this I’ve often felt a bit-of-a-fraud. Words rather than a Tom of Finland physique are my sword and yes, men of Wales, we need to have words.
I guess we all remember the first time we fell in love with leather. I guess we all remember the first time we went out in leather, its tender cladding making us feel bigger and bolder than normal. I guess we all remember the first glance, the first smile, the first kiss with a leather man.
Many of us on the scene will remember days before the apps, the classified ads in Exchange & Mart and Bike Magazine when contact with like minded men seemed harder and was more clandestine. Then the Internet came along. Gaydar burst onto the scene and enticing images appeared on our computer screens in a fanfare of modem bleeps and screeches. Then the apps. Oh the apps. Killer applications which made hookups easy as dialling in a Chinese takeaway.
Had we only known then that the killer apps could risk killing the very scene and leather community they claimed to bring together.
But what does this have to do with Wales? Surely this is a problem which is universal?
Well, yes, you’re right. The apps, their opportunities and their threats are omnipresent, Wales included. But my reading of the situation is that being a leather man in Wales brings other challenges and I’d love to know what we can do about it.
I offer no solutions here, only an account of my own experiences and a gentle challenge to make some small big step.
In rallying the troops and encouraging men to parade in a bit of leather for Sat these are some of the typical responses I have had: “I’d love to come to Cardiff Pride / a leather event/ a leather flashmob, but I’m worried about being seen in public by friends / family / colleagues / my boss. Sorry”.
If I had a penny for every time I’d heard this, I’d have very heavy pockets indeed. And on the face of it, the argument seems unassailable. It’s not anyone’s place to pass comment on our Welsh leather brothers’ choices.
But somehow, something changes and it seems to be different once you cross the border over the Severn bridges: we are emboldened to march at Bristol, in London, in Birmingham and at the seaside in Bournemouth, supposedly ‘safe’ from the prying eyes of those whom we fear will judge us, and therefore more willing to put our leather out there for public consumption.
Presumably then we are cowered on home territory by the response of those whom we care about or whose opinion can impact on us professionally?
Funny that. Sounds just like the drag queens. A group of men who express their sexuality in part in terms of what they wear. A group of men, some of whom may be understandably concerned about the reception of their sartorial decisions. But let’s remember that it was the drag queens who stood up and who were counted in the Stonewall Riots alongside their more conservatively dressed colleagues.
It was a drag queen, Panti Bliss, who set in motion a public debate about LGBT+ issues in Ireland. I’m not arguing that we have the same power as the drag queens to affect change to our wider community but I do wonder if we are condemning ourselves to the effects of repression and perhaps worse self-repression each time we leave the leather hanging up in the wardrobe.
Until we break the cycle and start wearing our leather out there more, we will forever be inside a closet of partially our own making.
“It’s easy for you to say that, Mr LeatherWest,”, perhaps you are thinking right now. And yes, you’re absolutely right. But maybe my journey will help you to understand that the fears some Welshmen have shared with me were mine too.
My first encounter with the power of the leatherman image dates back to the late 1990’s when I fell in lust with an image on-line. Little did I know that the man in the image would one day become my leather mentor and a man who has supported me through the loss of a parent.
For me, the image was so powerful that I was powerless to make contact with him for fear of rejection or ridicule. Fifteen years or so were to go by before I realised that behind the image was a true friend.
And that’s what makes our community so important: dig beneath the image and you find the camaraderie and more, that I’ve not experienced in other walks of life. The images are potent but the reality is both available and of immense value.
Fast forward to Bristol Pride last year, my first time in public in leather.
I was terrified. I’m not sure how I did it, other than with the support of leather friends and the fear of letting them down if I chickened out. And I had a blast. The day was transformative, both in terms of my entry into a leather brotherhood and in terms of the entirely positive response from the public. The same public response has repeated itself time and time again: the crowds love the leather men and the biggest cheers and whoops are reserved for us as we troop past in our gear.
The other transformation of that day at Bristol Pride was the friendships that developed as a result from within the leather community; when the following day my mother died, the support I received from my leather brothers made it clear that I owed it to them, to myself, and to my mother’s memory to acknowledge them and myself publicly as a proud leather man.
Just a month later and there I was in the middle of the first ever organised leather presence in Cardiff (and Wales) at Pride Cymru 2014. And what a day. Take a look at the gallery of pictures to see what I mean.
Then the big challenge. The clash of the private and the public. How to manage the media coverage around winning Mr LeatherWest and the concern that work would find out. Working in the state sector in an organisation that has dedicated LGBT+ representation in our HR department certainly made it easier, but it didn’t feel that way when I told my line manager and the Director of Student Services that my image was all over the media.
Their reaction was entirely supportive and has set me off on a new course helping with my employer’s LGBT+ network.
So yes, my journey has been an overwhelmingly positive one. There is no promise this will be same for every leather man who is unsure of recounting himself on home territory.
Friends and family can and do get awkward, work colleagues can become bullies. I thought that negative response was to be my fate. I was wrong. The evidence from organisations like Stonewall is clear: the more authentic we can be in the workplace, the better we work and the happier we are.
I’m not arguing for a mass leather flashmob on Saturday at Cardiff Pride, with a sacrificial burning of fabric on a heteronormative pyre in Queen Street. I’m not saying anyone is less for not wearing leather out in public on Welsh soil. But I am encouraging you to just come along.
Meet us, join in the walking group, regardless of what you wear – you don’t have to be wearing leather, just identify with yourself as a leather man. Talk to fellow leather men, ask them about their journeys, how they came to feel able to walk tall and proud. After all, it’s called Pride for a reason and let’s be proud of who and what we wear. With that achieved, perhaps then we can move forward to build a truly inclusive #LeatherWales.
As I end, ponder this. Five years ago in Bristol there was no visible leather presence. It was discrete, at selected ‘members only’ events, and yes, “on the apps”. Now, fast forward, it is not unusual to see leather men on their own or in groups around the Old Market Quarter. Leather men have grown in confidence, in visibility and in self-pride, living a more (as Stonewall says) “authentic life”. Yes, it can take time. Cardiff and South Wales are no different.
As Mr. LeatherWest I’ll be working on the #LeatherWales project to start to build firm foundations for a growing, future vibrant leather community/cymuned lledr. It’s one worth starting. And, I am not alone. There are several leather men who also feel the same way. These men are Leather Dragons! “We have to do something” is the common call and they are ready to help “build this thing”.
With a great group of optimistic and determined leather men and using the resources of LeatherWest and sympathetic businesses and venues, means instead of “have to do something” we’re now “doing something.” The very important first step has been taken.
Join us on Saturday. Come along and join us in this journey to help build a #LeatherWales.