This past weekend was, for intents and purposes, one of the more prominent gay high holy days here in Chicago: IML (International Mr. Leather). People come from all across the nation and beyond to embrace their inner kinky side. From 21 years and up, people — mostly gay men, but there are a decent number of straight-ish people — come to buy gear in leather, rubber, neoprene, metal, and various materials. They come to watch as Chicago's Memorial Day tourists encounter leather daddies in ass-less chaps, vests, and enough back hair to help out a few cancer patients. They come to make out and "play" with random strangers and old friends alike, engaging in activities varying from a completely platonic makeout session to bondage, domination, submission, sadism, or masochism scenes that most of us would rate NC17, or choose not to watch at all. For those of us less connected with the kink world, IML is our version of the old turn-of-the-century sideshows that accompanied the traveling circuses. It's a place to go and see something with which we might never actually identify ourselves. We shift into "other" language, using they and them to describe the people that we are not like. But for some of us, there is a change that takes place when we show up at the Hyatt Regency down off of Wacker and Michigan (fitting street name, right?). We see something, or someone, and all of a sudden, we learn something new about ourselves.
I was reading a blog entry this morning on In Our Words, a queer blog project. The entry was about the frequent disdain present for and aimed at a particular subset of the gay community, twinks. Most often, the term is used to describe gay men between 18-21 who have slender builds, little to no body hair, and often a more effeminate persona about them. While the age bracket fluctuates thanks to the magic of skin care product, the stereotypes hold fairly steady. I have some friends who blog for IOW, and so I've been following the site for awhile. This particular post struck a pretty big chord with me.
Growing up, I was never athletic. Slender was a far-off dream. And hairless, well, over the years I've maintained the same level of hair, although it's progressively lost the battle against gravity. Until a couple of years ago at my first IML, I was unaware that there was a term for me as well: I'm a cub. Unfortunately, as much animosity as I had and still have towards "twinks," I seem to hold just as much for myself, though not necessarily for those who share my shape/physique.
So how does all this come together? What's the point? Well, as someone who tends to do more introspection than anything else, I felt like, after attending IML for 3 years in a row, it was time that I actually did some tangible reflection on the experience(s)...
If you go to IML, the types of people you may encounter are as tall as they wide. Additionally, the range of interests and intentions are just as varied. Me... well, prior to meeting my partner, I was pretty much as vanilla as they came. Hell, if it were possible to be something more vanilla than vanilla, that's where I would have been. I knew the terms and a decent amount about the "kink" community, but it was not my niche... or so I thought.
Then I met Frankie, and his friends from both his pagan brotherhood and his circle of "recreational" friends, and I realized that I had more in common with most of these men than I ever had with most of my pre-existing gay male accomplices. Specifically, when it comes to body image and persona, within this community, I shared some major similarities. I care a lot for self-exploration. I require trust within sexually intimate situations. I highly value relationships. And I rely on the input of others to help me learn more about myself.
Last IML, Frankie got me a t-shirt that says Trophy Cub. For most, this is just corny and adorable. For someone like me who has always struggle to feel physically and sexually adequate for another person, it was a badge of honor. It was someone telling me, "You're enough for me. In fact, you're more than enough. You're what I want, and I choose you." Here we were standing amidst this veritable smorgasbord of body types, personalities, interests, and fetishes, and someone chooses me, possibly the most average, easy to please guy of the bunch. I wasn't much into pain or bondage or 3/4/5+somes. I wasn't into leather, rubber, neoprene, or other apparel materials. I wasn't caught up in being called "sir" or "boy." I was simply me, a guy with a slight tummy, a fuzzy patch of hair right at the base of my back, an average "endowment," and most different from many others, a call into ministry. If there were ever a place in which I felt like "one of these things is not like the other," it was amidst that crowd.
I found myself people watching amidst the crowds. When my eyes would come across anyone who remotely resembled a "twink," I would internally cringe with hatred, disdain, and sheer envy. Why were they lucky enough to have the perfect head of hair, fashion sense, physique, below-the-belt endowment, and tan level? Why could they feel comfortable wearing a singlet or a harness or another other piece of fetish apparel while I barely felt comfortable in a polo and cargo shorts? Better question: what had I done to not deserve those traits? Why did I get left out? Dammit, I had every right to be angry, and worse, I had every right to make them feel as bad about themselves as I felt about myself. I was the one who spoke about them when they were within earshot, ensuring that they knew how I felt. Unbeknownst to me, I was telling them more of how I perceived myself than of how I saw them.
Yesterday, I grabbed lunch with a close friend and neighbor. We went to the Bear-B-Q at Sidetrack down off of Halsted. Here I was among this crowd of guys who could most likely crush me, yet I felt so at home. I felt like I could be myself without scrutiny or judgment. I didn't feel like there was anyone calling me too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, too butch or too fem. As lunch went on, the crowd grew more diverse, including younger and thinner and smoother guys. I could have felt uncomfortable or awkward, yet I did not...
I felt just right.