Chicago has been known to have some very cold winters, but one thing's for sure: Every Memorial Day weekend, the so-called "Windy City" becomes the hottest place in the world. That's because thousands of Leathermen, Leatherwomen, kinksters of all varieties, and their admirers from all over the globe convene for International Mr. Leather (IML). It's an extra long (and sometimes overwhelming) weekend-- and every sweaty minute of it always promises to be memorable for the participants and attendees. The weekend always kicks off with pre-IML activities on Thursday, and the traditional grand finale is The Black and Blue Ball on Monday night. In between, there are educational seminars, meet-and-greets, merchandise marts, silent auctions, and many, many parties to represent a wide range of our community's assorted fetishes and kinks. IML, widely considered to be the "Big Daddy" of all the Leather events in the word, is all about Leather awareness and education, unity in the Kink and the GBLT community at large, and... celebration! And, of course, there's that climactic moment on Sunday evening when one lucky man is selected to be the face of the Leather Nation. Now, a little bit of history: IML's forerunner was the 1970's "Mr. Gold Coast" bar contest held at Chicago's Gold Coast Leather bar, owned by Chuck Renslow and his then-partner, Dom Orejudos. As the "Mr. Gold Coast" contest became one of the bar's most popular events, it expanded to a larger venue in 1979. Along with the change of venue came a change in name to "International Mr. Leather", and what was born as an annual bar contest gradually became the major happening it is as we approach 2016. IML has expanded from 12 contestants its first year to 52 in 2015, with Contestants from a large number of different countries who encompass many ethnicities, ages, and lifestyles.
Patrick Smith of Los Angeles is International Mr. Leather 2015. Originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, the striking Leatherman had been named both Eagle LA Mr. Leather 2015 and Mr. Los Angeles Leather 2015 in March early this year. At Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend (CLAW) in April, his jockstrap was auctioned off for the equivalent of a down payment on a small home. And at his big win in Chicago, his mother and sisters joined him on stage in what was one of the most memorable moments of IML 37. As full-time Ambassador for the Leather Community, Smith is determined to emphasize the "International" in IML. He is committed to the fight for universal equality and sexual freedom. That commitment included traveling to Uganda, the African country which received widespread attention in North America for the law that was nicknamed the "Kill The Gays Bill". The hard-line stance in that nation was largely stimulated in 2009, when a Member of Parliament introduced The Anti Homosexuality Act. The Act would have broadened the criminalization of same-sex relationships in Uganda, as well as introducing the death penalty for "serial offenders", HIV-positive people who engaged in sexual activity with people of the same sex, and persons who engaged in same-sex sexual acts with people under 18 years of age. In addition, individuals or companies that "promoted" LGBT rights would be fined, imprisoned, or both. A slightly watered-down law (punishment of life in prison, instead of the death penalty, for "aggravated homosexuality") eventually emerged in 2014. That law was annulled (on a technicality), but not before ushering in the more extreme and even violent spirit of homophobia which exists today. Homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as is the case in most of the countries in southeast Africa.
After Uganda, Smith went on to visit the Ukraine. When I asked him about why he chose to visit there, he tells me, "I wanted to learn about how the ongoing Russia/Ukraine conflict has affected the community there. I was actually expecting a better situation than what I found, which is unfortunate. Despite now living under a pro-European Union regime, things have gotten worse for the gay community since the revolution in 2014. Pro-Russian forces in Ukrainian border communities are terrorizing LGBT people there - assaulting them, driving them out of their homes. I met with four women living in a shelter in Kiev, who had to flee their homes in Donetsk and Luhansk along the Russian border. They had to pack up everything and flee at a moment's notice, fearing for their safety due to their sexual identity. It was a terribly heartbreaking story to hear."
Needless to say, Mr. Smith has kept himself busy, and he's not even into half of his Title year! Patrick took the time to speak with me about being IML, his international travels, and... what makes a guy sexy!
JR: Hi Patrick. Thanks for speaking with me. So, it's been almost five months since you were named IML 2015. So far, what's been the most exciting and/or rewarding experience you've had?
PS: Definitely my travels to Uganda and Ukraine. I love the Leather contests and the parties, but it's more rewarding for me to learn about-- and hopefully, help to influence-- the state of our community in parts of the world where LGBT people still live on the fringes of society.
JR: Before your mission to Uganda and Ukraine, what other countries did you visit? Which one was your favorite?
PS: Those were my first two international stops as IML. Prior to winning the title, I had traveled to India and to numerous Latin American countries. I also traveled to Germany following my Uganda and Ukraine trip, which was another amazing experience. The nightlife in Berlin is to die for.
JR: Yes, I've heard! So, it's a safe bet that most of us will probably NEVER make it to Uganda. It must have been culture shock. What was your biggest impression on the day-to-day life of the people there?
PS: There was a culture shock, but I will say that the people of Uganda are incredibly warm and friendly, and did all they could to make me feel welcome. Day-to-day life is so different based on your socioeconomic status there. On one hand, I visited a church with some of the country's most affluent citizens all dressed to the nines, who could fit into the Western world without anyone batting an eye. On the other hand, you see extreme poverty with citizens selling their wares on the side of the road just to make enough to put food on the table.
JR: Wow! What was it like for a tall, striking-looking Caucasian guy to be visiting the less urban areas of that country? Did people react to you a certain way?
PS: They did. I visited a school in a rural part of the country and I had the incredible opportunity to conduct a lengthy Q&A session with an eighth grade class. I was told that for most of the students, it was their first time seeing a white person face-to-face. Later in the village, I did turn a few heads, but it was nothing threatening-- just genuine curiosity. Everyone I spoke with was very pleased that I was visiting. They are very proud of their country, and looking beyond the human rights concerns, it is a beautiful place.
JR: I'm sure the country has a lot of natural beauty. Did you ever find out if the government knew about your visit? Would that have been unsafe?
PS: I still don't know. They certainly didn't know in advance of my visit; I was very discreet in the lead-up to it. My family actually begged me not to go, and while that wasn't an option for me, I did commit to not publicizing the trip in advance. The most nerve-wracking part of the trip was going through customs once I landed. I had only one backpack with me, which contained my IML sash, correspondence between me and some of the most prominent gay rights activists in Uganda, and a computer full of research on the status of the gay community in the country. I was terrified I would be selected for a random search. I still don't know what would have happened if they had searched me.
JR: Wow! That story should put into perspective all these guys who get nervous about bringing their "toys" through airport security on their way to Leather events in this country! (Laughs) But seriously: It's well known that a lot of African countries are not safe spaces for openly gay people-- for religious and/or political reasons. But from what you learned on your visit, what were the underlying circumstances that led that particular country to create the infamous so-called "Kill The Gays Bill"?
PS: There is a deep fear and misunderstanding of the LGBT community among many Africans, which is being stoked by irresponsible church leaders and politicians. And in many ways, it's not unlike the prejudices that were being spread in the Western world not so long ago. Anti-gay figureheads in Africa speak about the need to "protect" children from LGBT people, which echoes the messaging used by U.S. anti-gay figures such as Anita Bryant in the 1970s. And it's no coincidence - there is a disturbing amount of cooperation between U.S. anti-gay groups and African politicians to pass the heinous legislation that we're seeing there. That's why it's important we continue to fight these anti-gay groups here at home. Despite our recent domestic victories, people are still in need of our help abroad.
JR: What was the most challenging part of the trip... aside from, I assume, a LONG (15 to 19 hours) and expensive plane ride?!
PS: Yes, very long! (Laughs) It was actually a bit of a challenge contacting and getting meetings with the community leaders there, but for good reason. Everything is so underground. They have to be very, very careful about whom they put their trust into to meet with, to disclose their address to, etc. There is the very real risk of entrapment for them there. So it took many conversations over email, Facebook, and by phone before a level of trust was built allowing me to visit their homes and places of work.
JR: A lot of Americans may wonder why they should care about what happens in foreign countries, when we are still fighting our own struggle for equality on a day-to-day basis. What would you say to them?
PS: I would ask them to think, next time they're sipping champagne at a friend's same-sex wedding, about what life would be like if they had to fear an 18-year prison sentence for having sex with the person they love. I do understand that there are still battles to be fought at home, but we are light years ahead of where these people are in the international community. And the reason I'm going to these places is to hopefully bring some awareness to this. Should we keep fighting for employment non-discrimination and ending the ban on donating blood? Absolutely. But I think we should start focusing more and more resources on our LGBT brothers and sisters abroad, who are fighting for their lives.
JR: I agree. During my own research, I learned that a lot of progress in human rights was made when these countries wanted to join the U.N., or when equality-minded countries in North America and Europe vowed not to do business with them anymore. But as individuals, what can each and every one of us in the U.S. and Canada do to fight for equality worldwide on a daily basis?
PS: There are a few things we can do. First: Money talks. The groups I met with are all able to accept foreign donations, and we must be willing to open our wallets to help them. We also must continue to put political pressure on our leaders to call out LGBT rights violations abroad. In Uganda, it worked. Their most recent anti-gay bill was struck down by the courts and activists, and we are optimistic it will never come back thanks to the international backlash it received in the first go-around. Lastly, there are a disgusting number of US-based anti-gay groups that are funding and lobbying for international anti-gay legislation that would throw LGBT people in jail for life, or worse. We need to work to expose these groups here at home, handicap their fundraising efforts, and get them listed as registered hate groups.
JR: And, hopefully, a lot of that will start by everyone who reads about your mission... so thank you for that! Now, let's talk about being International Mr. Leather. Clearly, your traveling schedule keeps you busy... but what do you like to do in your spare time?
PS: I love to write. It's therapeutic, plus it keeps me busy on the plane. In fact, I'm currently writing a memoir about my experience in the three leather contests that led me to the title. Look for it on Amazon! I plan to have it on shelves in time for IML 2016.
JR: I expect to receive my autographed copy! (Laughs) When your fellow Leather brothers come to visit L.A., what are some essential things they should do or places they should go?
PS: Definitely The Eagle. I got my start as Eagle LA Mr. Leather, and it is hands down the best bar in the city. Also explore Silver Lake, which I am in love with and is my home. It has a lot of historical significance for the leather community in Los Angeles and is the home of the Black Cat riots of 1967, which predate even Stonewall. The Black Cat is still in business on Sunset Blvd. Also, check out the Silver Lake Reservoir, which is one of the most beautiful sights in all of Los Angeles.
JR: I'll keep that in mind on my next trip! So... a lot of people view Leathermen and Titleholders as the pinnacle of unapologetic sex appeal and-- I know that I'm using a loaded term-- "classic masculinity". But what do you personally find sexy in a guy?
PS: I think you've got a pretty good description there, though recently we are seeing all types of Leathermen who might not fit into the "classic masculinity" bucket, and that's just fine - we are truly a big tent community. As for what I like personally? I get weak in the knees for a sweaty, bearded muscle guy in a nice harness... with a bit of an attitude, of course. How can you go wrong with that?
JR: You can't! (Laughs) Lastly, I'm sure you get complimented a lot for your physique. Do you want to spill any of your health and fitness secrets?
PS: I wish I had a secret! If you know of one, please fill me in. Unfortunately it's just been a lot of dieting and time at the gym. I'm getting sick of it! On the plus side, CVS has recently expanded their selection of sugar-free candy, which helps with the cravings. I am a total candy fanatic.
JR: Well, then, at the risk of sounding corny, I wish you "sweet dreams"! Thanks again!