A year ago, James Lee was having a pretty bad time at International Mr. Leather. As with every Memorial Day weekend for the past four decades, leatherfolk had descended on the city of Chicago for what continues to be one of the largest and most important leather events in the world. Lee, then Mr. Crossings Leather 2017 of Kentucky, was fresh off a break up with a partner of nine and a half years and in town for his first-ever IML. “It was the most horrible experience I ever had,” Lee told OUT in an interview this week. “I had just broke up with my partner and I saw him there with his Sir, a guy that we both had thought was attractive. It felt like he left me to be with someone else and I had to see them there the entire weekend.”
“So I was dreading IML this year,” he continued. “But low and behold, I end up becoming International Mr. Leather.” The title makes Lee the highest ranking holder in the leather world, on a year that’s particularly important for the competition.
This year was the 40th anniversary of IML. What started originally as a photoshoot organized by Chuck Renslow, an iconic leatherman, eventually morphed into the Mr. Gold Coast contest named after the leather bar he owned. The success of that contest saw it outgrow that bar, and thus its name, becoming IML.
For 38 years Renslow was intimately involved in the contest, placing the sash on its winners and giving his “State of Leather” addresses every year from the IML podium. Last year, for the first time, he was not at the event as he was sick making Ralph Bruneau, IML 39, the first to ever be announced by someone other than Renslow. A month later he passed, a street in Chicago later being named after him as a testament to his influence and impact, making Lee the first titleholder in a post-Renslow leatherworld.
“I never got to meet Chuck face-to-face but the biggest thing for me this weekend that really hit hard is that you can do something so small [like a photoshoot] and it can turn out to be one of the most impactful things most of us value about our community,” Lee said.
Lee got his start in the leather community back in 2012 though he says he’s been a kinkster all of his life. “When I was in middle school and high school I was always into being in the locker rooms with the jocks and doing odd things like smelling jocks and wrestling naked,” he said. “I thought it was all great and didn’t know at the time that those things were kinks and fetishes."
But after an encounter with two daddies in Louisville, Kentucky he was exposed to his first leather bar: the now-shuttered Barracks. Dressed in chains and a jockstrap he was able to see “all of these great crazy people living their erotic fantasies in public.” The experience spurred Lee’s curiosity which would see him educate himself on the community and join it wholeheartedly.
On March 22, 2017, Lee ran for and won Mr. Crossings Leather 2017, his local bar title with plans on beefing up the local leather happenings. The win wouldn’t be his first title as back in 2011 he was Mr. Gay Houston USofA in the male entertainer version of the Miss Gay USofA drag pageant circuit. But this new leather title would set him on a track that would find him running for and winning Mr. Kentucky Leather 2017 before going up against 70 other men for the international slot. IML 40 would boost the largest competing class in the event’s history.
“I ran for [Mr. Kentucky Leather] as a thank you,” Lee, who is also a coach and a choreographer, explained. “It was a thank you to the community who helped me after my break up and told me I needed to continue to share with the world. I wanted to share with the world that through this community, you’ll always have a family.” That thank you has morphed into a year-long reign that will see the lifelong performer traveling across Europe and the Americas representing his leather family.
It is customary for each IML to have a cause. Last year, Bruneau’s was “Born Perfect” a campaign to outlaw conversion therapy for minors in all 50 states. At Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend in April he announced that he had raised $10,000 for the effort and legislative victories surrounding the campaign have recently been announced with Maryland recently passing their own bill to outlaw the anti-gay therapy.
While Lee is still deciding what causes he wants to take up, he does have a legacy in mind. “No one left behind,” he said. “By that I mean I really want to figure out a way to teach the community how to reach out to people who are coming to leather bars, or contests for the first time and seeing these radical sexualities being put on display, I want to teach the community how to incorporate these new people and make them feel in included.” It’s something that he’s already been doing on the state level with the Kentucky Leather Brotherhood.
But Lee’s win is also historic. He and his sash partner International Mr. Bootblack 2018 Lucky Rebel represent the first time in the contests’ history that both positions were filled by members of ONYX. ONYX is a leather club that hopes to educate, advocate for, and represent people of color in the community. This year will also be the second year that both IML and IMBB identify as people of color, the first being in 2014 when Ramien Pierre and Scout the Bootblack won.
“You know a lot of people are saying, ‘wow, there are ONYX members that are the IML and IMBB, are they going to turn it black or are they going to turn it all people of color?” Lee said. “No! We are there so that more people step out into the community and feel represented. We are there so our leather community grows and is not stifled.”
Sounds like a pretty good legacy from where we sit.