The event, which takes over the entire hotel from Friday through Sunday, features a fetish market with 120 vendors, fetish-themed events, support groups, and parties, all culminating to a leather contest on Sunday.
“It’s a top 10 non-McCormick [Place] conference in the city; it’s a major event,” said IML Coordinator, Jon Krongaard. “Depending on whose math, $14 million to $18 million.”
The annual event, which brings in thousands of people from all over the country and around the world, began in 1979 and also takes over Chicago’s gay neighborhoods with many bars hosting leather-themed events.
“It’s a celebration of sexuality, but also community, its become this family gathering that welcomes everyone,” said Joey McDonald, Den Daddy for IML competitors and 34-year event veteran. “It’s a bunch of people with their freak flag flying, there is no judgment, you’re allowed to be what you want to be.”
The event revolves around the concept of male sexuality and fetish, but the meaning of IML is more complex.
“Yes, it’s about gay-male-kinky sex, but it is without a doubt the singular biggest dysfunctional family reunion you could ever participate in,” said Krongaard. “You get to meet people from all walks of life from all over the world.”
With leather being one of the most well-known archetypes of the gay community, the real leather community is far more multifaceted than the pop culture understanding. Leather itself can mean different things to each person.
“To me, it’s about when you take away the leather and take away the sexual fetish,” said Chester Munro, director of project management for the Chicago Leather Archives & Museum. “It’s about the dignity, loyalty, honor and respect within the community.”
The gay leather sub-culture arguably began with the establishment of motorcycle clubs in the 1940s, on the West Coast. Gay men who would meet at motorcycle bars began riding with one another and creating the first riding and social club for gay men, “The Satyrs.” The social/fashion/fetish movement of leather as it is today, grew from this point with the creation of new clubs, which used leather as a distinguishing marker.
“There isn’t a mark to say ‘that’s when it all happened,’ it happened over time,” said Munro. “It’s what World War II was to the general gay rights movement; people began to find each other across state lines and were able to network.”
Chicago has a rich history in the leather culture. In the early 1960s, Chuck Renslow opened the first leather bar in Chicago, The Gold Coast. The first International Mister Leather contest was held in 1979 at the Gold Coast and quickly outgrew the bar, forcing owners to search for a hotel venue.
Although the bar has long since closed, the contest has grown significantly and today the definition of leather, kink and IML continues to evolve.
“You were kinky back then, but now you can be kinky and have a fetish but leather doesn’t have to be one of them,” said Krongaard. “That feeds back into how IML has evolved, and it evolves because the people that participate evolve it.”
The growth of this movement can be seen at its epitome this Memorial Day weekend at the IML conference in downtown Chicago. Packed with popular events like the Onyx Party and leather market, the highlight is the International Leather Contest on Sunday which will name one winner to carry the title of International Mr. Leather.
For more information and event details visit www.IMRL.com.