I was just asked to judge the International Master and slave contest in March in Dallas. That lead me to remember something I wrote a while back, which I am again going to retread, about judging a Leather contest:
I spent last weekend in the rather strange position of judging other members of our community.
Let me clarify, since to some extent, we judge others all the time in all kinds of ways. I was officially judging them. It wasn’t just the usual passing of a yay or a nay about someone and the choices they made in partner or wardrobe.
I was one of eight judges on a panel to pick a Leather Sir, a Leather boy and a Bootblack, all of whom would go on to the International Leather Sir/Leather boy and Community Bootblack Contest.
It’s an interesting thing to come into a room as a sort of designated “expert” on the Leather community. By my informal estimate, I would guess that the eight people on the panel have a combined length of experience in the public Leather community of about 150 years.
I know, from having been on the other side of the judging table, that we might well have seemed very intimidating. I went into it knowing three or four of the other judges, though none of them particularly well. Interestingly, judging together does tend to create a bond between you.
The next time I see any of them, we’ll meet as at least acquaintances; some I’ll meet as friends.
The goal of a judging panel is to choose those who will represent our community, those who will carry a title that says, I am verified, I’ve been tried and tested by a worthy panel of judges and they have set their seal of approval on me. They agree that I am what I say I am, and that what I am is what they agree a Leather Sir, or a Leather boy, or a Bootblack should be.
And what did we, as judges, think they should be? The first thing we believed they should be is qualified to hold the title.
Like most Leather contests, this one has a couple of requirements for contestants. There are two primary and inviolate rules to hold the Sir or boy title. One is that the contestants must identify as male legally. Until recently, only those who were genetically male were allowed to compete, but that was changed to allow transsexuals as well.
The other inflexible requirement is that you must self identify as being gay.
The Leather Sir and Leather boy titles describe themselves as the bad boys of Leather titles, because the titles are considered “player” titles, created with a focus on S&M as opposed to relationships. It’s expected that those who compete will be interested and experienced in different activities, which might include flogging, singletails, needles, mummification, bondage, electrical play, etc.
The title is the successor to the Drummer title, which was retired early in this decade, but it still maintains the Drummer credo. It’s a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
The Bootblack title, like many Bootblack titles, does not have gender or sexuality requirements. The Bootblack title focuses on your skills at caring for leather, as well as your interaction with those who own the leather for which they care.
It is expected that they will be technically skilled, and that their personality will be engaging and appealing. We were very lucky to have two excellent contestants for that title, both of whom could have won and represented us well.
It was interesting to see what was important to each of us in judging another person to determine if they should represent those titles, and by that, ourselves. It seemed as though each of us had different interests, different kinds of questions we wanted answered.
One of the panel asked about the connection, for them, between sex and S&M.
One of us asked about their community service, another expectation for the title, that they will be visible in the community and working for charitable causes, both lifestyle and non-lifestyle related.
One of us asked about the kinds of S&M activities each one of them liked, while another asked about the current and former holders of the titles for which they were competing, and for which they would compete if they won that contest.
One of us asked the Sir and boy contestants what had happened in June of 1969, and in June of 1981. The answers, for those of you who are interested, are that in June of 1969 the Stonewall riots occurred in New York City, which is marked as the beginning of the gay liberation movement, and the AIDS epidemic is considered to have officially begun in June of 1981.
Most of the contestants could answer the first; none of them could answer the second.
My questions were primarily about the leather they wore, how they’d acquired it, and what it meant to them.
The judge’s interviews are probably the hardest part of a contest for those who are running for a title, but it’s not the only area on which they are judged. We judge them on a speech, on their “Leather Image,” and on a fantasy they present on stage.
The Bootblacks are judged on a speech, their image and grooming, and how well they are able to care for leather. One of the ways that’s judged is by giving contestants a boot that has seen far better days and a set amount of time in which to “rescue” it, condition it, repair it, and polish it.
Each time, as you watch them, observe how they speak, what they say, how comfortable they are in their own skins, you then translate that into a number.
If the total points they could earn is 60, how well did they do? Was it a 90% effort? Or was it an 85% effort? Should I award them a 50, or a 55?
What if you think they did very poorly? What’s the worst you can legitimately score them? Is it ever fair to say a zero is appropriate, for someone who was willing to put themselves on the line, so to speak, to compete?
It’s a challenge to decide how well someone did, from one’s own personal perspective. Suppose I think their community involvement is really great, but they don’t know anything about their own Leather history?
Suppose they seem very comfortable in their own skins, but very uncomfortable in the leather clothing they wear? Should that matter?
It’s somewhat of a comfort to know it’s an Olympic scoring system which throws out the highest and lowest score for each category, so if you mark them much higher or lower than others, that anomaly in scoring won’t cost a worthwhile competitor the title or award it to an undeserving one.
In the end, we crowned a Leather Sir, a Leather boy, and a Bootblack, and I’m comfortable with all the winners we chose. Some have more work to do to prepare for the next stage than others, but I don’t think any of them will represent us poorly, will make me wonder if I made the right decision, if I should have been more conservative in the scores I gave, more demanding in what I expect from someone who will represent me.
I am confident, too, that each of them will grow personally in their representation of our community, and that the people I see in six months competing for the next level will be more prepared and even more comfortable in their skins and their roles than they are at this moment.
On the other hand, I’m back to wondering what it is that makes me qualified to judge someone else.
Some of it, certainly, is my time served, so to speak. I have been around in one way or another closing in on a decade and a half. I’ve proved that I can walk the walk as well as talk the talk, both in terms of play and in terms of work in the community.
I’ve made it clear by the way I live that I’m not just a tourist, here to look around, then heading off for the next edgy community, for the next thrill. This is where I live, the community with which I identify.
I’ve run for titles myself, won a title, lost another, produced contests and titleholders myself. I’ve seen any number of contests, and this isn’t the first time I’ve judged.
On one hand, we tell each other that we shouldn’t judge others, that we can’t effectively judge anyone until we have walked in their shoes, seen their lives from their perspective and felt what they feel.
I think perhaps we should look at Leather contests and those who compete in the same way dogs are judged in dog shows.
In a dog show, the judge walks down the row of beagles, or dachshunds, or Scottish terriers, and looks at each of them, one by one. If you don’t know better, you assume he’s comparing each of them against all the others, asking if this is the BEST beagle of that group, or the prettiest dachshund, the most perfect Scottie of all the Scotties he sees in front of him, but he’s not.
What a judge is charged with doing is comparing each dog he sees to the perfect representation of the breed, what is called the breed standard. That standard describes very clearly what the judge is to look for, what is acceptable and what is not.
It says, for instance, that the beagle’s eyes will be “large, set well apart with a soft and houndlike-expression, gentle and pleading; of a brown or hazel color.”
It says that the dachshund must appear “neither crippled, awkward, nor cramped in his capacity for movement,” and adds that “inasmuch as the Dachshund is a hunting dog, scars from honorable wounds shall not be considered a fault.” Notice that even they consider that the wound should be honorably gained.
There are qualities for which the standard tells a judge that he must disqualify the dog, too.
In a Scottie, it insists, in capital letters that the American Kennel Club itself has chosen, “NO JUDGE SHOULD PUT TO WINNERS OR BEST OF BREED ANY SCOTTISH TERRIER NOT SHOWING REAL TERRIER CHARACTER IN THE RING.”
If the dog doesn’t behave as a Scottie should behave, if it appears timid or frightened, even if he finds it perfect in body, he cannot name the dog as a winner, even if that means no winner is chosen. Better to have no winner than to have one who is not what he should be, who does not behave as he should behave.
The judge is expected to carry a mental image of the perfect representation of that breed and superimpose it on the animal he is judging.
So, perhaps we should be doing the same thing as a judge.
We should be envisioning our perfect Leather Sir, or boy, or Bootblack, and measuring this contestant against that standard. Where does he fall short, where does he meet or even exceed what we might expect?
Is his capacity for movement awkward or crippled?
Are his scars those that have been gained honorably, and should therefore add to his value, not detract from it?
Does he show, perhaps most importantly, the true temperament of a Leather man or woman, of a Bootblack?
Perhaps in the end, that’s the single most important quality a judge should be looking for – a true titleholder temperament, one which will serve us well and represent us in a way in which we can be proud of the choices we made.
Perhaps the next time, that’s what I’ll focus on myself.