By Ralph Bruneau Ralph Bruneau is current International Mister Leather and guest writer of Alphatribe. He talks to the very first man ever to have won a fetish title, International Mister Leather 1979.


So. Let me say, first off, what an honour it is to be given this assignment.

Thank you.

We spent a day together (with, I think, 10 other IML) in Chicago for Chuck Renslow’s memorial service. It was such a meaningful day for me to be there with you all so shortly after I’d won. I’m sure that your experience as the first IML is so different from mine as the current. Let’s start there. What was your experience like? Why did you run? Where was the contest held? How many contestants were there? And what were the categories of the contest?



Back it 1979 life in the Leather world was much different than it is today or has been for years. Though there were those that embraced leather and lived in every day, they were rare. For the most part, we were working men that by day dressed in work clothes (many in suits) and dressed in the leather on evenings and weekends.
Included in this cross section was those that appreciated uniforms; these tended to be actual service uniforms and not leather renditions.

Up to 1979, my experience in leather had been limited to two cities: Philadelphia and San Francisco. At the time there were few leather titles other than the occasional bar title, this was voted on by the patrons of the bar.

In my case, from a few years of exposure to the bars in San Francisco (augmented by the fact that I was working on the rigs month on and month off, leaving almost six months of ‘play’ time in the city), I got to become involved with many in the Leather world from Alan Selby (when he owned Mr. S), the editors of Drummer, Rev. Troy Perry, Mr. Marcus, Bar owners, bartenders as well as patrons and many others.

In 1979 Chuck Renslow sent out a note to bar owners and through the Gay Press that there was to be a contest in Chicago for International Mr. Leather. My friends encouraged me to run for the title at our favourite hangout at the time – The Brig. It was a long process at that time taking about eight weeks. Each Wednesday (I think it was Wednesday …) they would ask for contestants to run for the title to represent the Brig. We were led up to a stack of beer cases and asked questions, usually by Mr. Marcus, Leather columnist for the San Francisco BAR (many were more to entertain the crowd). At the end of the questioning, all done in the leather we wore to the bar, the patrons were asked to vote to select the winner for the week. At the end, the winners from each week were all walked up onto the same beer cases and again the patrons of the bar voted, this time for the final winner.

So the honour of competing in Chicago was given to me by those that I played and partied with at the Brig and others from local bars at the time. I think for me it was more the process of being involved on a local level rather than the Chicago completion. That next step was a great unknown.

No one had any idea of what to expect. It didn’t hold the status it does today. There was no precedent, no responsibilities, no parameters. To give you an idea of its stature, Mr. Marcus did not attend due to a previous engagement – the only IML he missed until his death. Essentially we were leather men coming from our respective communities.

So I headed to Chicago with my lover, a plane ticket and $1,000 from Hank (owner of the Brig), the leather I owned – a Master’s cap, a vest, chaps, a leather pouch and boots – and a white bathing suit.

The contest and hotel rooms were in the Radisson Hotel on Michigan Avenue. The scene was a most unlikely one as it was far from the leather world we knew and were comfortable in; a mix of elegant surroundings and a lot of guests from the straight world, including some type of religious organization attending a convention in the hotel. The contest was in a Ballroom with a stage and runway. The walk from the rooms to the Ballroom was an interesting experience. Imagine, in those days Leather was very ‘noticable’ even from the general Gay world, where Gay was illegal in so many ways our world was in lesser travelled paths/streets.

There were 12 contestants all from the US: one from Canada had withdrawn.

There were three categories:

1st: Leather Image (leather or leather related outfit) 2nd: Physical Appearance (swimsuit or shorts) 3rd: Attitude and Personality (a 2-minute speech to tell about yourself so the judges could learn about you)

I am attaching a copy of the original mimeographed (yes mimeographed) one-page Contestant’s Information Sheet.

I know there were 12 men from the US who competed for your title. My class had 63 men from 13 countries competing for IML. Did you stay close to the men from your class? Did you travel much? What was the most demanding part of your tenure and what was your favourite part?

Yes, there were only 12 contestants the first year. Again the only international contestant from Canada did not show. For the most part, Europeans and other countries such as Australia were more into the play aspects of leather rather than contests. (A little-known fact: Etienne used an image for the first poster based on one of the contestants …Dirk Dehner.)

I was able to keep in touch with one or two and did run into them in various cities as we all tended to migrate.

But there was no real sense of comradery overall – none actually got to play with each other that weekend that I know. I also believe that some felt the loss hard and were not interested in the contest past the weekend.

I did travel – a lot, but it was for work and fun. There were no expectations from Chuck Renslow, or from the Leather world at large. For most, life continued as usual in the leather world as the contest itself was not well known nor followed at the time.

The expectations – continue to party as befitted a Leatherman – and I followed that (as others will attest) very well. We were fighting for Gay and Lesbian rights in general but nothing connected directly with the Leather world. Even Chuck approached the fight for rights as a businessman and not so much as a member of the Leather Community.

We participated in marches, and protests, but generally Leather was a manifestation of looking for what was called in those days (including print) ‘hypermasculinity’ and not ‘appreciated in the LGBT Community at large. In the large cities, we were predominantly male-dominated environments with the exception of a few special situations. (Such as special play spaces where men would be fisted by sought-after women …)

Most demanding part, none really. I was brought out to guest bartend for charity events. Favourite parts, well again, those guest appearances and lots of good times (few related directly to the title).

In those days we had a saying that real Leathermen don’t dance, so how to get around it – organize a Red Hankie Ball!

There is so much different in the worlds in which we served as IML. I was around, certainly. We are very close in age even though you are the first and I am the current IML. 1979 was pre-AIDS. What was it like to be such an iconic figure during that time?

Remember in those days an IML was not an iconic figure. Few knew about the contest and few cared. The ‘iconic’ came with years of exposure, survival and the explosion of the notoriety of the IML Weekend.

What was the impact on the men, the contest, the title in a post-AIDS world?

AIDS brought in a tectonic shift in the Leather World. We had lived in bars, bathhouses, play parties and dungeons. There was a withdrawal from much of those activities by many, and those that might continue to pursue these
activities would not discuss them in public due to the stigma attached.

The bar scene, centre of the contestant pool, became a shadow of its former self. People were in survival mode. Those in the contest world shifted from the wild and free play to focusing on avoidance of transmission. “Safe, Sane and Consensual’ became the mantra of the times.

The shift caused an examination of how we played and it was reflected in the very essence of the contest context. And with it came the idea of a brotherhood. Solidarity was a better approach to the threat.

Chuck was gravely ill when I took the title last May. I never had the pleasure of meeting him. Can you tell me and our readers a bit about him, his vision, his work and his goals for the title and contest?

Chuck and I had a unique but distant relationship. I wasn’t involved in his Chicago life as were others within the community living in Chicago. I knew of his work leading up to the contest, which is public knowledge; his commitment to equality for all within the LGBT Community. His matter of fact dogged pursuit of rights through quiet but strong legal options and public exposure.

The title was an offshoot of the Mr. Gold Coast Contest. Chuck’s partner, Etienne, brainstormed the idea of the Mr. International Leather Contest to be held in Chicago annually. In those days our Leather world, in the major cities, was based on the masculine man steeped in the image of Tom of Finland, Drummer Magazine, Honcho and the like. I believe that the best way to understand the concept behind the original contest is to take the wording from the instructions to the judges by the organization:

“Keep in mind that what you are looking for is not necessarily the handsomest face or the most muscular body, but rather, the man who best typifies the ideal LEATHERMAN to you; someone whose poise and special self-assurance, whose very presence is imbued with that special and undeniable quality we recognize in “Leather”.”

The “pecs and personality” segment of the contest is a crowd favourite. I imagine you were in a jock on stage as well. Did they ask you a “pop” question? It was a bit terrifying for some of us. Did you dread or enjoy that element? Was the focus then on the physiques of the men or their level of comfort in their bodies?

In 1979 they didn’t have “Pecs and Personality”. In the instructions to Contestants, the category was “Physical APPEARANCE” (wear a bathing suit or shorts) during this segment they announced us one by one; we walked onto the stage, out the runway (smiled, waved), returned again to centre stage (smiled, waved) and off stage. (Yes, I wore a bathing suit … and it was white.) I believe the intention was to see how we felt in our bodies – of course, there was the prurient interest factor. I was comfortable, though I have to say I did notice that mine wasn’t the ‘most developed’ on that stage. We didn’t have a pop question then. It was a two-minute “speech”, timed, delivered in the third segment “ATTITUDE AND PERSONALITY”. Essentially we had those two minutes to tell about ourselves so the judges could ‘learn’ something about us. I can’t remember what I said, but I suppose it was well received.

On the final evening of the contest, men are now scored on the leather image and a 90-second speech. I and many others chose to do the speech in dress leathers. Was that part of your contest as well?

The contest was effectively all in one night, though
the event was a three-day weekend. We did have a PARADE OF CONTESTANTS on Saturday night in which we appeared in leather, introduced ourselves and told who we were representing. No speech. Again that was reserved for the contest, which was held all in one night from 8:00 PM to 12:30 AM.

This year I have been able to talk to audiences all over the world about my work to ban Conversion Therapy for minors. As a mental health professional, it has been very rewarding to integrate my work as a psychotherapist with my leather life. Was having a platform and being an advocate within or outside our community part of the life of an IML from the onset?

At the time we didn’t have platforms. Nothing was really expected of us other than to show up the following year to judge and select our successor. As mentioned, our causes were simple in those days – they were the fact that we had no rights. In the world we lived in everything we embodied was illegal. We were fighting wherever possible to have the right to exist without being harassed, arrested, fired, losing our jobs or even killed for being Gay. The Leather itself represented an outside group from mainstream LGBT if such a thing could be called mainstream. We in the Leather world played in the off the beaten path places – such as Folsom area during those days in San Francisco. We weren’t allowed to march in the first years of Gay Pride Parades. LGBT people, except in large metropolitan areas existed very undercover. We migrated to the safety of large cities. Some found jobs where orientation wasn’t a concern (think clichés’), the rest of us ‘blended in’ during the day. In a way we gloried in being Gay – we weren’t accepted so we created our own world. I remember living in San Francisco and rarely dealing with non-Gay people: Gay dentist, Gay doctor, Gay barber, Gay restaurants, Gay clubs, Gay parties. Then off to work in the oil business and assuming a new persona. A person working on an offshore rig at the time didn’t last long if you were found to be Gay – and it could be dangerous. We fought the fight for freedom but kept company within groups of our own preference.

Adopting a platform came later, especially with the advent of the AIDS epidemic.

So I know that your IML medallion is actually 14-carat gold cuz I got to see it when we met in Chicago. Mine looks more like Hanukkah gelt. How long did the guys get gold? I’ll ask you what I’ve been asked about my winnings. We know about the medallion being gold, did you get a Harley? A porn contract? A travel fund? How did it work?

My medal is 18-carat gold and hand etched with the IML logo on the front with the lettering “International Mr. Leather First Place 1979.” It is very special to me and worn rarely; Chuck gifted me a replacement to wear that is the medal worn today by winners of the contest. Our contestant ‘medallions” were made from two pieces of tin held together with a screw top ring. My prizes were a few gift certificates to Leather shops, a check for $1,000 and a Yamaha 500 motorcycle. No I didn’t get a porn contract; too busy working in the oil business and playing. There wasn’t a travel fund nor was travel expected. End of the contest and it was off to party. We each went home to our respective cities. I did some charity bartending at some great leather bars in the city and then continued my commute around the world in the oil business.

Some titleholders take stage names for a variety of reasons. I chose not to, though I respect the choice of those who do. I think I was a little unprepared for the instant saturation of my win on the internet and social media. Were there any privacy concerns or stigma associated with being chosen as IML in the initial or early years?

Social media in those days was in Gay magazines, some alternative magazines and Gay newspapers such as the San Francisco BAR. The potential of anyone finding out about your position was very minimal – unless you went into porn and then it was within the group of people knowledgeable about the industry. We had no internet, no cell phones, no computers. Those outside the immediate circle of friends and acquaintances rarely knew anything about the title. Not that we lived our lives in the open, but few people even knew we existed in the Leather world. There was a social stigma in the LGBT world if you were associated with Leather, the rest of the world was rarely exposed to our existence. In those days just being from San Francisco/California was enough to have people talk.

Things changed when to world discovered computers and AOL.

IML, is to many, a celebration of unabashed masculinity and sexuality. In the 80’s many bathhouses closed and our community was, by some, blamed for the spread of the epidemic. As a kind of ambassador for this lifestyle and community did you face any challenges as a result of being IML through those years?

It is true that it was perceived as a celebration of “hypermasculinity” and sexuality. It is also true that our ‘group’ was held up to blame for the spread of AIDS due to our lifestyle, but bathhouses were not the exclusive territory of Leathermen. I believe that since we were already perceived as an outcast group we were an easy place to place the blame. Yes, the bathhouses shut, bars suffered and life was living a shell-shocked existence. We all felt a bit of the stigma when it was learned by others in the LGBT world that we were into Leather. In the endless days of dealing with illness, attending memorials, losing friends and loved ones Leather titles didn’t enter the equation in the early days; we were just people trying to deal with a dreadful, horrifying situation called life as a Gay man in the early times of AIDS.

I moved to Houston in 1980; the world was still a fun place to play in. Early in 1983 I was transferred to Scotland and then to Italy, just as the crisis was being felt hard in many cities. I lost my lover to AIDS in 1984. In my position and locations I lived and worked being an ambassador for the Leather IML wasn’t really an option. Often just being American was enough to make you a pariah as AIDS was seen to be an American phenomenon. Far from friends and family in foreign countries my world was isolated, feeling isolated and a bit lonely. By the time I returned to live in the US in the late 1980s the epidemic was being fought in the streets through Act UP and in the bars where men and women were establishing support groups that never existed before, with the exception of organizations like Meals on Wheels.

Eventually I, too, had to go on disability with AIDS. From that moment, I used my time devoted to organizations benefiting persons with AIDS and the community at large. Though people did know of my title as the first International Mr. Leather, it wasn’t an integral part of the work I was doing.

I know that you have been recognized many times for your contributions to the leather community as well as the larger LGBTQ community. Can you speak a bit about your work as an advocate for PLWA as well as an advocate for marriage equality?

Until my going on disability with AIDS, my travel and survival along with ill lovers kept me busy. In 1991 I asked a friend if there was anything I could do to help in the battle against AIDS. He was the President of an organization in Houston called The Assistance Fund (TAF). At the time they were in need of a Board Member but mostly an Administrator for the organization. So I accepted both positions as a volunteer. Our goal – to help those people in the Houston area maintain and pay for their insurance premiums so that they could get the care and prescriptions they needed to survive. I was lucky to work helping to raise money, to process people’s claims, apply for grants and see the organization grow with a wonderful group of people. From there my lover and I moved to Austin, Texas, to ‘retire’, but a good friend asked me to join another cause in that city called The HIV Wellness Center as Board Member and Treasurer. In Austin, we administered to people with AIDS to get them access to nutrition counselling, massage therapy and acupuncture. My partner died in 1996 and I started to live back in San Francisco. There a friend of mine asked me to join a group called, at the time, SMMILE (now called Folsom events). I joined the Board and became Treasurer as well. Through the Dore Alley (UP Your Alley) Fair and the Folsom Street Fair over the years we raised millions for local AIDS-related organizations and other worthy community organizations. I was also honoured to be in charge of the South of Market Bare Chest Calendar for a few years, another fundraising event in San Francisco. During this period, I enjoyed helping in political campaigns for candidates showing compassion in all aspects of the community at large. The highlight was working to help elect Mark Leno, who as a State Senator in California did much to instil community responsibility in the state government. This all changed in 2002.

In 2001, I met my present husband to be, Remi, at IML. As I was established in San Francisco, Remi moved down to be with me later that year. He blended in and became part of the Leather Community, helping with Folsom and working at a favourite watering hole, Daddy’s on Castro.

Then in 2002, a rather annoying Border Guard, with a decidedly homophobic attitude, decided that Remi was spending too much in the US, “he was living off the US” being staying with me. He was red flagged and thrown out of the country. This brought home to me just how vulnerable we in LGBT Community were. Even though we had found acceptance in some locations and several important levels, when it came to love, we had better keep our hearts in the USA. We fought but the damage was done. I decided to leave my home and my country to live with Remi in Toronto, Canada, a place much more welcoming than my home. We became vocal to anyone that would listen to the unfairness of the system where, at the time we estimated there were about 1300 rights that Lesbians and Gays were preclude from having, just because we were not allowed the choice of being able to say we were legally married. Our interviews brought
us into contact with many mainstream publications and eventually into a documentary in Canada called ‘Gloriously Free’. It spoke of people leaving their countries to find freedom in Canada that was unavailable at home. I was the spokesperson for the US. Eventually all of Canada opened to same-sex marriage as did the US through the efforts of so many people working tireless for freedom. Marriage, one of many symbols of an oppression, became an unexpected win at this time of life when the right was granted. Another step forward.

Although you are the first IML and I won the title 39 years ago, we’ve lived through the same times. Besides the obvious difference of not running against a 64 year old for your title, how has the contest and the times changed? What do you miss about the early years and what do you appreciate about the evolution?

I will break this down into three areas:

How has the contest changed?

Besides the set-up of the contest which has grown enormously in scale and complexity, one basic elements are that in 1979 the contest was new and therefore few knew of its existence. Its impact on the larger world of Leather folk was limited and predominately catered to a Gay Man’s Leather in certain cities. Of course kink and uniforms and the like were under the umbrella, but they were a part of the scene as a given. It was still Leather motivated.

Today the contest has embraced and acknowledged diversity in many forms: transmen, straight men, kink, rubber (though there is a Rubber Contest), uniforms and every fetish that can be imagined and catalogued in a world where Leather is not necessarily the standard by which the contestants are measured. With 39 years of exposure, the advent of social media the availability of information on the contest has made it something that everyone can access. And there has been a stream of historical documentation which allows anyone to find out about the times before, during and up-to-date the world of Leather and its many related kink activities. There are ‘spin-off’ contests (no disrespect intended) that have been established since 1979. In addition came the involvement by not only Gay men, transmen, straights, male identified as contestants but women, transwomen and other non-cis people. It has become a large tent with a lot of scrutiny from outside the contest.

How have the Times Changed?

That is a very large question to answer. I will relate them only to the Leather World and outside influences that impacted it.

In 1979 Leather, in our circle, was dominated by Gay Men. We were a spin-off of the male rebel as portrayed by returning war veterans, the image of Marlon Brando and Tom of Finland. We embraced the idea of male
masculinity, which precluded having women and men not embracing our concepts from participating. The world had ostracized LGBT persons (not even acknowledging the many other identifications we understand today) so they created their own world that paralleled the straight world. In return Leather folk were ostracized by the LGBT group in general, so we created our own world separate for others in a parallel world. Therefore the idea of inclusiveness was slightly limited. Everyone found their comfort zone and migrated to likeminded people. For example, in those days Lesbians did have bars and clubs which they frequented and men weren’t always welcome. We did overlap in activities but generally were stayed with our own and when moving into another sphere generally respected the norms within and dressed accordingly. Obviously there were exceptions were people lived and breathed Leather, but for those in the working world this wasn’t an option.

Today the LGBT Community has become LGBTTIQQ2SA Community and its expanded concept is a part of the IML Contest awareness. Today we have the explosion of social media. Today same-sex couples are allowed marriage in many countries; some countries have made its idea unlawful, an idea that didn’t need expressing before. Today IML is not necessarily associated with Leather Image nor Gay men. Today IML is part of the world at large recognized around the world (for those interested enough to research – including those less that pleased with our existence). The world is a smaller place and exclusive groups are no longer embraced and little tolerated in the general LGBTTIQQ2SA.

I’ll ask you what Guy Baldwin asked me in an interview shortly after I won. Why is IML relevant or important? To whom? Why?

Why is it relevant? Its new identity is linked with social causes as well as understanding the diversity of people under the umbrella of Kink. With the contest’s expanded exposure into media outlets, some that never before existed, the Title comes with a platform and the ability to reach large numbers of people. Times have changed from a contest of Gay Leather MEN to a larger world which demands recognition. With the acceptance of so many diverse groups with special agendas, it is necessary to help people find common ground. Humans in general are an excitable group, each with their focus on their specific needs. It is important to acknowledge these needs without rejecting the needs of others. Oppression comes in many forms and to varying degrees. But to the person feeling the oppression no matter the level, it is still important. IML is in a position of leadership. It is a trying position at best. In these times of embracing all while separating into groups with labels, it is the role of a good leader to help others understand how people feel and to help them understand it is important that it is those needs and ideas which we share that are just as important as those needs and ideas of any specific group.

To Whom and Why?

IML is just a segment, a smaller one, of the general LGBTTIQQ2SA group at large, but it now has influence beyond the “Leather World.” It is important to all people to realize that by fighting smaller battles within our ranks the outcome can be detrimental to the greater good of all people. The IML Titleholder is in a position to help clarify the overall goal, identify groups of people requiring special needs, work toward educating everyone and bringing them together to determine how best to make the world a level playing field for all.

Of course the final goal appears so distant in today’s world and the level of oppression varies by group and location. But coming together, getting people to see their shared qualities and getting them to vote, no matter where they live (if possible), is a good start.

What do you miss about the early years and what do you appreciate about the evolution?

What do I miss about the early days? It was the raw exhilaration of male sexuality that made your body the focus of pleasure with no restrictions or outside influences of what was right or wrong, correct or incorrect. We shed our clothing being a part of the heterosexual world , as we entered the world of Gay Leather Men and were able to embrace our attraction, desire and love of men and male bodies.

What do I appreciate about the evolution? That is a hard question rooted as I was in the statement above. But by backing away from the sensuality, I can see the evolution has allowed us to begin to understand that while we were privileged to have experienced this personal world we created, we now need see that we are a part of a larger group of people that fight everyday for their place in the world of personal sexuality and the freedom to express it. We need to acknowledge it and help all attain this goal, to level the field. While the core of the IML Contest moves away from a male orientated hypermasculinity, it is important that we impress on all that we are an alliance of people of varied tastes and needs, something that makes individuality something to be celebrated – for all.

To be excited and attracted to the concept of cis male masculinity is not something to be ashamed of, nor its pursuit. The same should be allowed to all persons and their comfort zone. The importance, moving forward, is
how we treat one another when we meet in a specified gender, sexual neutral place of gathering. Respect is the key.