“Kink Crusaders”, a new documentary by Mike Skiff, goes both onstage and behind the scenes for The 30th (or, “Triple X”!) International Mr. Leather Weekend in Chicago. Skiff takes the documentary much further than solely showing us hot guys in leather strutting their stuff for the judges or chatting with these guys backstage, however. In “Kink Crusaders“, the filmmaker explores the long and colorful history of the Contest… and, in the process, we truly go into the heart and soul of the Leather and BDSM world at large. For those not in the know, Mr. International Leather is widely considered to be the “Big Daddy” of all the Leather events in the world. More than just a Contest, the long weekend is all about Leather awareness and education, unity in the Leather and GBLT communities, networking, and… celebration! As one of the voices in the film declares, “International Mr. Leather is an institution. It’s here to stay!”

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 today. All IML Contestants are either the Winner of a bar, local, or regional Leather contest; or have been sponsored by a Leather bar, business, club, or organization. For the weekend when “Kink Crusaders” was filmed, there were Contestants from 23 states and seven countries. All of them, in the words of Renslow himself on Opening Night, “have come together to participate in the fraternity that binds us in body, mind, and spirit … the Brotherhood in Leather.”

As the DVD cover art would indicate, there is lots of eye candy in “Kink Crusaders”, especially during the much anticipated Pecs and Personality (AKA “Jockstrap”) segment, set to throbbing house music. Whoa! But there’s much more than to appreciate in this film than just muscles and gear. We see fascinating vintage footage of the Gold Coast Contests from the 70’s, when the event was described by many as largely a “beauty contest”, and “Pecs and Personality” was called the “Swimsuit” segment. We meet previous Winners, including the outgoing Mr. IML 2007 Mikel Gerle who is brutally frank (and often brutally funny!) about what he expects in a Winner. And of course, we also meet the Contestants. While the mix of excitement and nervous confidence is clearly palpable in all the Contestants‘ faces, some of these men stand out more than the others: There’s Don Sir, Mr. Long Beach Leather 2007… who is straight. There‘s “Hunter“, Mr. Russian River Leather 2008, a 62-year old HIV-positive guy whose first piece of leather, his boots, date back to 1968. We meet Richard Hubley, Mr. Leather Ottawa 2008, the first man in a wheelchair to compete at IML. There’s Ryan “Tyger” Yoshinaga, Mr. Central California Leather 2007, who ponders, “I think I’m the only Asian Contestant!” Indeed, the movie addresses how IML and the Leather community as a whole have slowly but surely become more diverse through the decades in regard to race, gender, and ability.

On the subject of gender: Some equally dynamic soundbytes come from the women who are at the event during the weekend– a good number of them who identify as straight– who deal with the challenge of being females in a still testosterone-heavy world. It‘s a challenge they seem very happy to accept! We meet Ms. Illinois Leather Pride 2008, who reveals that when she played with her Barbie Dolls, “Ken really paid for it!” (Let’s just say: It involved fire play!) We also meet Queen Cougar (Ms. San Francisco Leather 1993), who’s no less than a revelation with her reflections about being a Leatherwoman of color. And lest we forget, there’s Christine and Vicki, two Asian-American women who happen to catch the IML Pup Party while innocently passing through the hotel. They watch with a mixture of incredulousness, fascination, and amusement. (“They’re using toys that my dog uses!”) The look on their faces is priceless.

In the midst of all the titillation, fun, history, and education (And there‘s plenty of all four in “Kink Crusaders“.), there are many truly heartfelt moments in this documentary . We learn how the advent of AIDS in the ’80’s both devastated yet galvanized and united the gay community. The AIDS Emergency Fund was formed by Leather people in San Francisco in response to the crisis, and that organization is still widely used as a model for AIDS charities today. Other provocative moments come when these Leathermen are discussing their relationship with their families and their role in society at large. And, to state the obvious, you can’t top when the new Mr. International Mr. Leather is announced at the conclusion of the film.

“Kink Crusaders” gives the viewer as much of the excitement of being at IML as it can without actually entering the “play” areas (Sorry, you had to be there!).  It’s a documentary that’s full of life but also full of heart… the same heart that we see on the iconic Leather Pride flag.  This movie is destined to become a queer cinematic classic.

“Kink Crusaders” is now available on DVD.


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