MAN ENOUGH TO BE A LEATHERMAN:
An Interview With Mr. Leather 64Ten 2016 James Tyrcha
For the GLBT's large and diverse Leather/Kink community, the annual International Mr. Leather (IML) weekend is widely considered to be the "Big Daddy" of all Leather events. Held every Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, the so-called "Windy City" becomes the setting for thousands of out-and-proud Leathermen, Leatherwomen, and kinksters of all ages, ethnicities, and fetishes. The extra-long, adrenaline-filled weekend is more than just one big party, however. In addition to the many social events and activities, there is also an infinite amount of opportunity for Leather/Kink awareness, expression, and education. And, of course, there's that climactic moment on Sunday evening when one lucky guy is selected to be the face of the diverse worldwide Leather community. At this year's IML, 59 men competed for the Title of International Mr. Leather, with the ruggedly handsome Mr. New Jersey Leather 2016, David "Tigger" Bailey, taking the envied sash. Although only one man can win, the event is widely regarded by all Contestants as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as well as a lifelong bonding experience between IML Classmates.
Fifty-nine men. Fifty-nine unique stories. Chicago native James Tyrcha is one of those men-- and he indeed has a unique story to tell. Tyrcha competed with four other guys and won the Title of Mr. Leather 64 Ten 2016 in March of this year, which enabled him to compete at IML. The 39-year old is an out and proud transmale. While Tyrcha is certainly not the first transmale to own a Leather Title or to compete at IML, his newfound visibility has come at a time when it seems that the whole nation is talking about transgender issues. Sadly, a lot of that talk has shown to based on emotional reaction and even blatant misinformation, rather than based on intelligent discourse or knowledge gained from actually knowing a transperson. Tyrcha tells me that he found acceptance in the Leather community which, interestingly, idealizes many so-called "traditional" aspects of masculinity-- from facial and body hair to the unapologetic expression of open sexuality. He tells me, "I wasn't really 'out' at the beginning of my transition. I started hanging out a lot with the Leather community, and saw how accepting everybody was. I was usually in the background, listening to conversations-- and I noticed that if somebody ever said something bad about another person, someone would jump in right away and call them out on it. They wouldn't tolerate it. It was heartwarming to see that happen. I was scared about whether or not I should say something. Are these people going to accept me as a man? Are they going to see me differently? Then I started seeing other transmen coming to the leather bars, and they were very accepted. Around that time, all these anti-trans bathroom laws and incidents of violence started happening. Social media started blowing up with all these awful stories, like transwomen getting killed. I became friends with Buck Angel. He's a big pioneer in our community. He shifted his entire career from doing adult movies to education and to creating acceptance through visibility and through talking about it. I was thinking to myself, What a great opportunity to educate the world through men like Buck, and Mr. San Diego Eagle 2014 Paulo Batista, and me. We are not visibly trans. If we come out and say, 'Hey, we are trans!', then it's going to change what people think trans is. People have this idea that transpeople are perverted men in heels trying to have sex with their daughters in bathrooms. It's absolutely absurd. That's never even happened. If they see someone like myself, who's very masculine and completely male--100%-- then they are gonna go, 'Wow. Well, maybe our idea of trans is wrong, and we need to learn about it and accept it.' So, I came out to my Leather family. They hugged me and said, 'You're one of us. You're no different. You're a pioneer, and a great person, you've got courage and heart, and it takes a lot to come out.' They took me in, and they protect me. If anyone ever gives me any hell or whatever, they would have my back 100%."
James Tyrcha and I spoke more about his own journey in the Leather community, as well as his upcoming plans as an activist in both the Leather/Kink world and beyond:
JR: Hello James. Thanks for speaking with me. So, on your website, you are very open about your journey. As a titleholder and as a visible representative of the Chicago Leather community, is transgender visibility and acceptance your chosen cause?
JT: Yes. But my greater cause is equality for our entire community, not just specifically transpeople. I am trying to be a leader in the face of trans rights. But altogether, it's about gay rights, and it's about BDSM rights, and about HIV-positive rights, and sexual freedom rights. They are all important to me, because it all ties into one thing.
JR: I agree. People forget that we are all one community, and ultimately, we have to be united-- especially given the recent tragic events.
JT: Exactly. I've seen more "shaming" in our own community, which is really sad. Boystown, in Chicago, is a very touristy destination. You have these young kids who are just coming out. They all wear the pretty Gucci shirts, and they are all very "uber-gay" (Laughs). And then there are the Leathermen. There's that segregation. Some of these people-- even in our own gay community-- think that Leathermen are "sick" or "twisted" or "perverted". It's bad to see that there's shaming going on in our own community. My IML classmates and I have our own private space where we can all speak to each other, and I learned that some of the stuff that's been going on with our own brothers has just been awful. Somebody posted on one of the guys' Facebook page, "Since you didn't win IML or place in the Top 20, now you can go kill yourself." We were like, "What the fuck?!" This was some random person on Facebook. With a Title, you gain something of a celebrity status and you get a social media "boost". Everyone wants to be friends with you on Facebook, but you don't really know these people. Still, you want to reach out to people and to get your message across. But you don't really know who you're accepting as a "friend" until they post something crazy!
JR: How true! So, you've used the term "masculine" quite a bit. Do you think that the word "masculine" itself is something of a buzzword? For example, some people-- including some transmales themselves-- believe that Leathermen promote a limited, so-called "exaggerated" idea of the traditional male stereotype: the facial hair, the body hair, the tattoos, the unapologetic sexuality...
JT: From my own personal experience in dealing with the transmale community, I have learned that some of these people identify as "non-binary". There are people out there who strongly believe that they are not a "man" or a "woman". They are in the middle. Personally-- and this is me quoting Buck Angel-- "I don't get it!" (Laughs) You're either a man or a woman. You can't be an "it"! Some people want to identify as "non-binary", and I respect that. I don't shame it. But I don't understand why somebody would want to be in the middle. How confusing is that? Masculinity to me is just "being a guy"-- whether you like other guys or you like girls. There's every different type of person out there: There are fat people, skinny people, black, white, Hispanic, muscular, not muscular, fit... Everything is out there, and that's what makes the community great: the variety. But I just can't wrap my head around the "non-binary" part!
I think that a lot of "masculinity" is mental, and how you feel, and how you portray yourself. You can be a tiny little person and feel like the most masculine guy in the world, or you can be a very large, six foot four, muscular guy and be the "twinkiest" man! So, masculinity is not just about appearance. It's really about your mental state, and how you feel. I had to address these issues of Buck and the backlash you are talking about, when I brought him to Chicago in January: I reached out to the transmale community. There are a lot of transmen who are getting ready to go on hormones and are looking for support to do that; and there are guys who are 100% transitioned and are about 15 years into it. There are also a lot of non-binary guys in that group. So, people were coming back to me and saying, "Well, I want to see Buck, but I don't want to hear him refer to his genitals as a pussy." They were offended by it. Well, you can't tell somebody what to call their genitals! You can give them a nickname: Men call their penis "Harry", or "Tom", or "Snake" or whatever... and transmen can call their stuff whatever they want! There are quite a few transguys out there who get really upset with Buck for doing that: They say, "You're a man. You shouldn't be calling it that!" But you can't be upset by the fact that he embraces his genitals. He always goes by "Buck Angel: The Man with the Pussy" in his adult film work. It's part of his platform. I noticed in the beginning of my transition ten years ago that there's the male ego, and there's always a lot of jealousy. Men are always very competitive. Look at the gym: There are guys watching who's working out harder, or who's getting bigger and stronger... There's always been that with men. That jealousy exists in the transmale community as well. There could be the guy who starts hormones, and within three months he has a full beard. And there's another guy who takes three years to grow a little mustache. People get upset if they think someone has it better than them, and they want to talk about it! But everyone's transition is different... and sometimes we have a hard time wrapping our mind around the acceptance of others.
JR: Through the years, we have learned about such transgendered individuals who have "come out" and become advocates for equality in one way or another. Granted, some of them-- like Candis Cayne or Caitlyn Jenner-- have always been in the spotlight, so privacy was never a choice. But there are also an unknown number of transgendered men and women living anonymously in this country. Do you think that there's a conflict between those who choose to live anonymously, versus such people as yourself who are open about it?
JT: Nobody wants to feel alone. Myself, and Buck, and Paolo, and Shane Ortega, and Chaz Bono-- and a lot of the transmen who are speaking out-- are helping others come out as well. The community is growing. Here in Chicago, the transmale community is huge and very well known. It's only been in the last year or two that it's really grown. People know that we are here, and are understanding of what transmen are. At the beginning of my transition, people only knew about transwomen-- including a lot of people in the gay community. Now, there's a lot of information about it and a lot more coverage about it. I've thrown events throughout Chicago that have gotten a lot of press. I had Buck on the cover of "GRAB" magazine, which is a major gay publication which is in thousands of locations. People are going "Wow!"-- and they are learning about it. We have new members constantly reaching out to our group in Chicago: They start talking about their feelings about transitioning. We have Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago which specializes in GLBT healthcare. The resources are huge. It's just growing and growing. People are not feeling alone about it anymore. Three years ago it was not like that. At that time, I was trying to accept my own self-- and to believe that it was OK, and that I'd be safe, and that nobody was going to hurt me. Things like the Brandon Teena story really stick in your head when you have to make the choice of who you are going to surround yourself with. I know people who have daily trans-bashing experiences, and it's because of their demographics and the people around them.
JR: I understand. Living in New York City, it's sometimes difficult to understand the situation in other parts of the country. Now... Some people have speculated that transmen have an "easier" time in society than transwomen: meaning, they are more likely to find employment, more likely to find partners, are subject to less overt discrimination, etc. Some have offered the theory that the reason for this is that it's just easier to be a male than it is to be a female in our society-- largely due to "male privilege". How do you feel about that, based upon your experience?
JT: I think that in terms of visibility, then yes it is easier to be a transmale. When you transition and take testosterone, you completely masculinize. You get an Adam's apple, you get body hair, your shoulders get wider... You get to the point that you're not visibly trans anymore. You can walk around in the public eye and no one will know that you are transgendered. It's a lot harder for transwomen. You have to have a lot of surgery, with the Adam's apple shaving or with surgery to feminize the face. There's also the larger hands and the more muscular physique. That just makes it more difficult because when they walk through the public eye, everyone knows that they are trans. It would be like someone who's heavier being called a "fatty" in public by some jerk; When someone sees a transwoman, they might give her a hard time. That's changing now with greater acceptance, and with some parents and doctors putting their children on hormone blockers. That's great, because it doesn't allow the puberty process to happen until they are 16 or so, and then they can go on estrogen or testosterone. In the future, transwomen should have it so much easier, because their body won't be able to masculinize in the first place-- combined with the greater acceptance in society. Remember that everyone's body starts out female, and we either become male or we stay female. The transition process will be so much better as we move forward. There are so many stories and documentaries about greater acceptance, by both parents and by doctors and other healthcare workers as well.
JR: What was your experience at IML like? As the event grows and grows each year, it must have been overwhelming for at least some of the Contestants.
JT: After IML is all said and done, our Class brothers-- there are 59 of us-- are extremely close. We all came down from the emotions and all stuck together-- and through all the drama, we are here for each other twenty-four seven. No one has really fallen out of "the realm". It is devastating to not make the Top 20. I felt that way too. But in the end, we all came to believe that those placement numbers are all just mathematics, and don't mean anything to us. Some of our brothers just don't even want to know how they placed. It doesn't matter to any of us. We all believe that we are all winners, and we are all Number One, and we have Tigger representing us as our Class President. We are all just one. After that first hour at IML, there was a lot to take in-- because everyone wanted that opportunity to be in that Top 20. It hurts when you don't get there. But we stuck together as a group, as brothers. We all hugged each other, and cried together, and talked about our feelings... and in the end, it didn't matter. I came out of IML feeling amazing. It's a life-changing experience for the better. There are 1804 men in this world who wear the IML medal. When you wear that medal, which is around my neck right now, you feel every one of your brothers with you. When you don't have it on, you feel lost.
JR: That's great to hear. Now, on to a subject that it seems is on everyone's mind: the transgender bathroom law in North Carolina. This law aroused so much misinformation and smearing of trans people. I ask "Why?" For the transpeople I know, it would be ridiculous for them to use the bathroom of the sex they were born with. I honestly believe that the religious and political right created this as a way of bullying the most vulnerable segment of the GLBT community: "OK, if we can't stop society's acceptance of gays, and we can't stop gay marriage, and we can't stop gay rights, then we are going to target transpeople." What can all of us-- including our straight allies-- do to make things better for the trans community?
JT: Again, it's about people standing up and being visible. It is absolutely absurd. If I were to walk into a women's restroom, I would get a purse thrown at me or someone calling the cops, thinking I was some kind of pervert coming in there to mess with women. People who are trying to make these laws do not understand what "transgender" means. A lot of legislators, or governors, or other people are not educated about it, and don't even want to know more about it. They just make laws about things that they don't know about. Again, they just think it's about is a man putting on makeup and heels and going into women's restrooms. That's all they think being transgender is. So, trans leaders and our allies must stand up and help them understand. Whether they listen or not, it's their choice. Send them your stories, and photos... and keep sending them until they figure it out.
JR: I agree! So, on a lighter note: What do you do for fun?
JT: I love going to the beach. I love barbecues. Dogs rule! I love dogs more than human beings. (Laughs) I love to play with everybody's dog! I lost my dog two years ago. She was an "old lady". Now I just don't have the time to commit to a new dog... but I hope to have another one of my own some day. In the meantime I thought about getting some fish. I can take care of fish!
JR: Well, fish are cool pets. People who have them say that they are much more intelligent than we give them credit for. Which is what I like to think of the human race! (Laughs) Thanks for speaking with me!
Visit James Tyrcha's website here
Learn more about the "Man Cave" in Chicago here
(Photos of James, James with Tyler McCormick, James with Buck Angel, James with Billy Lane, and James with Paolo Batista courtesy of James Tyrcha.)