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(keynote address, Leather Leadership Conference XX, March 18, 2016)  

For 37 years, my workplace has been the television industry, and trust me, it’s very industrial. Television employs about as many Americans as the firearms industry. In fact, there are about as many guns as there are TV sets in the country, upwards of 300 million. The average American household now contains more televisions, and more guns, than people.

Alas, there are no mandatory background checks for people who make television, so I expect my workplace horror stories are pretty similar to yours.  Here’s a composite example of one, only slightly exaggerated:

Our heroine, a warm attractive plucky astrophysicist — picture Sally Field; “plucky” is code for “Sally Field” — has tracked down the man who kidnaped her son to make her steal top-secret documents. He has a weakness for Peter Lorre movies, and Sally discovers he’s in a nearly deserted matinee of The Maltese Falcon. She loiters outside of the theater, and when the lady in the ticket booth looks away to take a call, Sally bolts for the employee entrance, quickly picks the lock and slips inside. Wandering through the dark, dank corridors of the old theater, she lets out a little scream as she nearly steps on a big filthy rat; fortunately for her, Mary Astor in the movie was screaming at the same time.

To Sally’s shock, she encounters the projectionist on a rest room break. Thinking fast, she pops a few buttons off her blouse, bloodies her cheek, and explains she’s running from an abusive husband, could the projectionist please hide her? When he takes her to the projection room, Sally, still thinking fast, knocks him unconscious with a reel can on the shelf marked The Phantom Menace, then binds and gags him with the film inside, knowing no one will ever miss it.

Hearing Humphrey Bogart yell, “I won’t play the sap for you!” Sally realizes she’s running out of time. She spies the evil kidnaper below. Aha! She sees a catwalk running to the backstage area, moves swiftly across it like a wobbly gymnast, any wrong move a fall to certain death, then shimmies hand over hand down the rigging from the flies. Landing softly backstage just as the movie music swells to a crescendo, Sally fires a dozen shots through the projection screen with her semi-automatic pistol, and bursts through shouting, “Hand over my son, you sick bastard!”

At which point, you in the audience are quietly wondering, just as I did in the writers’ office: Why didn’t she just buy a ticket?

And we know, don’t we, what happens in the workplace when we ask such questions. We are dismissed as snide, insensitive, unimaginative, and worst of all, ungrateful, because don’t we appreciate how many people spent how many hours of back-breaking labor creating that sequence? And of course we know it is true: that many many people worked very very hard to accomplish something it never made any sense to do.

I don’t suppose this ever happens in our leather and kink organizations?

It seems to me that embedded in this little parable is a truth about leadership, which after all is the reason we’re here. The Leather Leadership Conference has taken some hits in recent years, some constructive, some destructive, some both, but obviously I still believe LLC is an effort worth making. There are more kinksters of all stripes than ever before; but we remain a loosely connected network of un- or underfunded organizations run by volunteers who worry they’d lose their real jobs if anyone knew.

So. In the scenario I just described, where is the leadership?

Countless pages in countless volumes are devoted to the question “What is Leadership?” Few of them agree with each other, but the definitions I find most persuasive contain four elements which I will knit together this way:

Leadership is the exercise of social influence to optimize the efforts of others toward a shared goal.

Let’s break down those elements:

1) Social influence. Influence is independent of authority. Your boss, the lady at the DMV, the elected official have a sort of power, but their social influence may be negligible. Being a leader and being in charge are not the same thing.

2) The efforts of others. A leader has followers. Visibility alone may give you social influence of a sort, but if what you’re pursuing you pursue for yourself, you’re not leading. Caitlyn Jenner might be example.

3) Leaders optimize those efforts of others. Pointless tasks are discouraged. Leaders channel the passion and energies of others in ways best calculated to achieve…

4) A shared goal. If the goal is the influencer’s alone, then he’s a trickster, like Tom Sawyer. A leader’s vision attracts followers because they have faith that achieving it will benefit them in a substantial way.

Back to our hypothetical TV show. Who is the leader in our scenario?

Not Sally Field. Nobody’s following her except the audience, and they’re already reaching for the remote.

Not the master criminal. Although seeing him go down supplies a sort of shared goal, for us and for Sally too.

Not you and I in the cheap seats saying “Why didn’t she just buy a ticket?” We may be correct about how to optimize Sally’s path to her goal, but our ability to influence the process is nil.

Not the camera crew, the set builders, the production designer, the dialogue coach, the stuntwomen. None of it was their idea. They’re paid to follow a script, whatever they think of it.

Not the writer. I know you want to blame the writer, everybody always blames the writer, but the fact remains that the writer has limited influence. We have our paycheck and our marching orders too.

So who is responsible for the mess poor Sally is in? Some remote executive, some director with clout but without the judgment to see the main character’s efforts do not add up, making the production team’s efforts ridiculous? We might say the project was doomed by bad leadership. Or we might say it had no leadership, only managers following a roadmap that took you and me and Sally everyplace but where we wanted to go.

Too many of our efforts spin out in exactly this way. We spend unrecoverable time, energy and money executing plans that cannot by any logical means attain what we say their goals are. Respect for tradition is all well and good, but carrying out hand-me-down schemes from habit or because it’s what other organizations are doing isn’t leadership, it’s just run-of-the-mill management. Too many of our organizations have been well enough managed and poorly led, ending sadly in a trail of formerly popular events that people stop showing up for and nobody misses.

Is there a remedy? I’d like to propose the following:

First, to examine carefully, minutely even, what we think is our shared goal. Are we sure that where we think we are headed is where our communities want to go?

Second, to examine whether the means and methods by which we pursue that goal can actually get us there.

Third, to examine the unintended consequences of those means and methods — there are always unintended consequences — and determine whether they’re acceptable, unacceptable, or actually kind of groovy.

To take those three principles for a test drive, let’s charge right into the holy of holies and take a hard look at our oldest, most copied, most popular, most ubiquitous, most stale, most celebrated and most abused events-slash-organizations: by which I mean, of course, contests.

I’m not out to bash contests. Some of my highest highs in the experience of community have come at IML and IMsL and ILSb, and at South Plains for the International Master/slave Contest. But since we hold more contests than anything else, all constructed pretty much the same way, it behooves us to ask whether they serve our purposes, and which purposes.

However: do we even know what they are? What is it we think we achieve through contests? I’m not talking about bar contests now. Like drag shows, karaoke nights, lube wrestling, wet T-shirt extravaganzas, bar contests exist to bring in customers — and I hope we are all in favor of strategies that keep our bars open. No, I’m looking at community-based and community-produced contests, some of which may happen in bars, but most are the centerpiece of some larger weekend shindig. My friend Race Bannon and I have done much mutual head-scratching as to why, first, community contests are so durable, ineradicable as the cockroach, even when nobody wants to compete in them; second, what factors make successful contests keep succeeding; and third, what it is we like about them, and whether contests are the most direct route to getting it.

On the first of February — as I was writing this speech — Race cunningly conducted this Facebook poll: “The best thing about leather contests is….”

There were about a hundred responses, a decent sample. By far the most frequent was, “Getting to see old friends and meet new ones.” Of course, we can say the same of town halls and PTA meetings, of CLAW and BDSM Writers Con, which have no contest. In fact, anyone who knows IML will attest you see more old friends and meet more new ones everywhere but the contest. Do you see old friends and make new ones at the opera, sitting in the dark staring at a stage?

A response I found intriguing. The best thing about leather contests is: “growth.” I am not sure whose. Granted, growth could happen any moment of our lives, even seated in a dark theater, but so could a lightning strike. If the respondent meant “growth” for the contestants, wouldn’t that better achieved by a mentoring program, even a public speaking seminar, than with the expense, time, and volunteer resources a contest consumes?

But maybe what the respondent meant was community growth, and here I think she may be onto something. If twenty friends of each contestant show up to root their buddy on, then even a contest with just ten contestants makes a sizable contribution to the community it serves, in both numbers and good feelings: you like my contestant, I like yours, let’s be friends. And since many contestants are fairly new to leather, it’s likely some of their friends will be too. The contest might even be their first leather event.

Would the same folks turn out for a leather dance contest, a leather storytelling night, where we didn’t have to hear two dozen bios read aloud and sit through a parade of colors?

Maybe, maybe not. Another of Race’s respondents posted: “I like the crowds [that contests] bring out. I wish other leather events could garner the interest that a contest does.” That sounds to me like something we should listen to. Is it partly the accretion, the waxy build-up, of what we might call the “contest class”? Every year of the life of a contest, it attracts more former contestants, former titleholders, former judges and tallymasters, current visiting titleholders, returning contest volunteers…

But about those volunteers. On the face of it, a contest looks like a very inefficient way to choose among a handful of contestants, the top two or three of whom rarely differ much in their worthiness and qualifications. The volunteer production team always exceeds the number of contestants by an exponential factor. Throw in sidelights like that deathless parade of colors and it’s not uncommon for two hundred people on- and off-stage to be involved in a contest consisting of three or four contestants.

An inefficient way to choose a contest winner — but if our actual unacknowledged goal is to engage as much of the community as possible in a time-limited event, then enlisting two hundred people “to help” is probably very efficient.

The best thing about leather contests is: “making money for good causes,” said somebody else. If we agree on only one thing, can it be that contests are a lousy way to make money? Producers I know are grateful to break even. It’s never a sure thing they’ll even raise enough to pay the winner’s travel expenses for their “required” duties. It may feel good, it may be a modest enticement, for a contest to say it is raising money for charity, but only the largest ones reliably deliver on that promise, and historically we know that what money is raised may have a murkier destination.

When it comes to raising money, nobody does it better than Folsom Street Events, nobody does it better than CLAW, nobody does it better than “Real Bad” on Folsom Sunday — not a contest among them.

The best thing about leather contests is: “showcasing our diversity.” No. Contests observably do the opposite: they reward uniformity, in thought, dress, values. Everyone has to follow the same rules, answer virtually the same questions, have roughly the same straitjacketed version of “leather history” in their heads, mostly other titleholders’ names and years and anything to do with Drummer. How often do judges ask white contestants about LGBT icons in Black and Latino communities, or even the names of the most renowned Japanese shibari practitioners? If our goal were diversity, we’d pack the house for Onyx events, we’d put on a show of international erotic artists, we’d have leather mariachis for entertainment or a battle of the Filipino dance bands, we’d hold key events in venues outside our traditional white gayborhoods. That we don’t do those things, I fear, suggests we’re not as interested in diversity as we say we are.

The best thing about leather contests is: “they’re a gauge of what’s important to the community.” Okay, in contestant speeches, in the variations of dress and manner displayed, we may sometimes spot new frontiers in gender expression, get a sense of which way the wind is blowing. But then, couldn’t we just create occasions for our people to tell us what’s important to them? Leather TED talks — why not? A conference on “Healthy and Toxic Masculinity,” inviting attendees to submit topics, proposals, something to publish.?

The best thing about leather contests is: “the camaraderie between contestants.” Sorry, no. You don’t need an audience or a theater rental for your camaraderie. Invite a bunch of good-looking shirtless people to the park on a sunny day, you’ll get camaraderie.

The best thing about leather contests is: “lots of hot leather people on stage.” Ding ding ding ding! We are people who like to look and aren’t bashful about it. We cannot quite call looking the universal contest attraction, since teaching titles call for other sorts of presentation. But it is the original contest experience, and its appeal is undimmed. That’s one goal that contests pretty directly achieve.

Most problematic but still worth examining is the response, and of course it appeared more than once, that The best thing about leather contests is: “training future leaders to represent the community.”

Maybe practicing your speech is a kind of training, but not in leadership. Neither is filling a jockstrap or a bustier and choosing the judge you’d most like to be shipwrecked with on a desert island. No, if training leaders is our goal, there are much more focused and intentional means of doing it: what we’re all doing here this weekend, for instance.

As for “representing the community…” yes, I know it’s a euphemism, but for what?  Making a good impression on people who don’t know you? A good impression on other titleholders, former titleholders, runners-up, producers, den daddies and emcees, since that’s basically all the traveling titleholder meets? And will they be “representing” to him while he’s “representing” to them? It all seems so ungodly courtly.

Still. A connection between contests and leadership is so frequently suggested or assumed that we have to dig a little deeper to account for it.

One essential element of leadership, you will remember, is social influence. Now, garden-variety extroverts may have social influence too, even if all they do is influence you to leave the room. If I can make you  look at me, that’s influence. Good-looking people command our attention and, consequently, some social influence too. Since contestants as a class are extroverted and nice to look at, we’ll naturally find a greater than average quotient of social influence among them.

What we see most frequently is that it baffles or scares them. They recognize they have a following, but all they can think of to do is be nice to them, entertaining, sexy, pleasant to be around. They may get coaxed into playing fundraiser in chief for some cause, since people will come out to see them; or they may spend their influence on the road, making that good impression we call representing. Or, whether from panic or regret for their lost privacy, they may do their level best not to be followed, portion out public appearances in spoonfuls, pursue interests that are private or too far away to bring anyone along. As is their right.

But when a contestant marries their social influence to a vision, makes  themselves heard and invites us along, leadership may happen. Think of Eric Leue, a former Mr L.A. Leather, and his campaign to raise awareness about pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV. Think of Bob Miller, this year’s recipient of the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Leather Leadership Award, who went home after IML and founded CLAW, now one of our essential men’s events, as well as the Leather Hall of Fame. Think of Mollena Williams-Haas, IMsL 2010, who used social influence and social media to force us as a leather nation to think about race and to raise awareness about Master/slave dynamics in communities of color.

In the end, we can say contests give us some measure of entertainment, of social opportunity, of voyeuristic fun, of community-building, and may serve as an introduction to men and women who will exert some future influence on us, move us, attract us, inspire us. Only time will tell whether they find a larger purpose for the attention we pay them than to be looked at — which anyway we appreciate and do not look down our noses at them for.

Sadly, however, many of the qualities Race’s respondents claimed to see in leather contests are just wishful thinking. They are beautiful aspirations: Growth. Diversity. Training. Camaraderie. Taking the pulse of our ever-expanding subculture.

Can we design — can we optimize — new structures, new roadmaps, new ways of coming-together to achieve them? Isn’t it our job to try?

Patrick Mulcahey