For much of his life, Jeff Gruenberger could not find representations of himself as a gay man within what he calls the "Hollywood stereotype."
"Whenever there's an actor on a sitcom or a movie, and it's a gay role, they play them very stereotypically," he says. "Where they're very lispy. All they're concerned about is the newsiest fashion. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with it. But I knew that wasn't me. I grew up on a farm, I love sports, I love to do carpentry and that type of thing ... and for a long time, I just stayed to myself."
Gruenberger describes himself as a "born and raised Cheesehead." The Racine native sports a lock and chain necklace and a ready smile.
Much of Gruenberger's joy comes from his discovery 10 years ago of the largely male leather community, often referred to by fellow members as "leathermen." Leather communities commonly refer to their practices as simply "leather."
Gruenberger, who now lives near Appleton, found his community at the annual International Mr. Leather (IML) weekend, held each year in Chicago since 1979. An estimated 18,000-20,000 people (mostly gay and bisexual men) gathered this year for six days at the downtown Marriott Hotel to celebrate leather and kink. The festival also hosted a pageant, where 51 men who won regional feeder contests throughout the world competed for the title of International Mr. Leather. Jason Puls of Milwaukee, the only Wisconsin contestant this year, was eliminated after the "Pecs & Personality" round of the contest, while Andy Cross of San Francisco went on to take the title.
Gruenberger, who competed last year at the pageant, is also organizing a Mr. Wisconsin Leather that will make its debut in October in Milwaukee.
"I wanted to create an event for Wisconsin that brings the [leather] community together," says Gruenberger. "That's my dream."
Pups, boys and daddies
As Gruenberger learned more about leather, he realized the attire leathermen wear holds significance beyond expressing masculinity.
"While some people think it's just a fetish, just a kink, ... there's the core qualities of integrity, charity, brotherhood, honesty," he says. "Those are things that we truly believe in. The leather is just an outward sign of that."
Gruenberger breaks leather down into several categories, which he calls the "Big Five." Sirs, Daddies, Boys, Slaves and Pups. These categories co-exist in many leather communities, and are separated by power and experience.
As Gruenberger tells it, Pups are individuals who enjoy a type of roleplaying called Puppy Play, both in sex and daily life. As I walked through the Marriott there were men wagging silicone tails who crawled past me, barking whenever someone shouted "squirrel!" in their direction.
"They're getting in trouble a lot," Gruenberger says. "In a fun way."
Slaves, says Gruenberger, enjoy giving up control. To varying degrees, some may ask for their Master's permission as they make decisions. Others may perform tasks at their Master's request, including domestic chores. The key, Gruenberger says, is that the Slave gets pleasure from adopting a submissive role. I recalled the Slave I had seen earlier that day. He attentively emerged from a cage, guided on a leash by a man I presumed was his Master.
Gruenberger describes the relationship among Boys, Daddies and Sirs as a form of mentorship.
"A Dad or father figure teaches a boy certain things growing up," he says. "You learn respect, being very structured. You're learning all those qualities from a Sir or a Daddy."
As a Boy becomes more involved in leather, he may ask around his community for a Sir or Daddy. He can later become a Daddy or Sir once his mentors feel he has earned the title. Gruenberger says this categorization is not universally accepted, nor are the boundaries as rigid as the labels suggest. But he thinks the model helps provides stability and perpetuates leather's history.
"We're one of the few communities in the gay community that's kind of like that," he says. "The leather community comes from a military background, the World War II military veterans. When you think of it in that terms, it just makes sense."
The Mister Leathers
Wisconsin is home to a number of local leather contests. In 2011, the Argonauts Leather Club of Green Bay awarded Gruenberger the title of "Mr. Northwoods." That year, the Harbor Room bar in Milwaukee named Eddie Candeleria "Mister Harbor Room." Both men went on to compete at International Mister Leather, and Gruenberger finished in the top 20 contestants, a first for Wisconsin.
Gruenberger says Wisconsin's contests are small and take place on a single evening at a local bar. He wants to change this, which is why he's putting together a statewide leather pageant. "I wanted to create a single weekend event where people of curiosity can come [and] people who have been in the leather community for a long time [can] reunite," he says.
Gruenberger expects the contest to alternate locations throughout the state in different years. In addition to the contest, he says Mr. Wisconsin Leather will provide participants with opportunities to learn more about leather and sexuality.
"Obviously the leather community is into kink and fetish, so we're going to have some actual workshops, so people who have been scared to ask questions ... [can] start that process in an environment where they don't feel awkward," Gruenberger says. "There is no odd question."
The Leather Market
The trade show for International Mr. Leather took up two ballrooms at the Marriott. Among the patrons were men dressed in spandex wrestling uniforms and animal costumes. Some wore jeans and leather harnesses that framed muscular torsos. Some men were fat, some were skinny. Singles flirted with salespeople, and couples leaned into one another for a periodic kiss. Sometimes the couples flirted with the salespeople too. A few squealed and laughed after they asked to be zapped with an electrified wand.
A handful of vendors from Madison were there.
Jeanie Davan runs Alt.Kilt out of a studio on Madison's east side. She creates contemporary, customized kilts, some of which are fetish themed.
This is Davan's fifth year selling wares at International Mr. Leather. She says leather kilts are very popular with her customers, who, by and large, are men. That's why this trade show is a winner for her.
"Where else am I going to find 12,000 men under one roof?" Davan says. "Every year has been spectacular, and it's one of the most fun conventions to also have been at."
Madison resident Jeff Peterson stood one booth over. He crafts customized powder-coated bondage equipment and furniture -- including cages -- from his Hardpoints at GreyCat Workshop.
After attending several International Mr. Leather weekends in Chicago, Peterson says he saw he could add variety to the market's products.
"I figured I could leverage my skills ... and offer something I'm not seeing," says Peterson, who notes this work is not his full-time job.
"This is what I do when I come home from work."
As I examined the powder detailing on Paterson's metalwork, his neighbor, a whip maker, flogged a customer who expressed an interest in trying out the merchandise. The whip maker and her customer got to talking about what sorts of physical sensations various kinds of leather could inflict on the skin.
Maggie Kane and Melissa Halpin of Industrial DisEase Toys help create and sell non-leather toys used in bondage and S&M play. They sell a line of modular floggers, which resemble the leaden grip of a lightsaber from the Star Wars movies. Kane and Halpin say the floggers are unique because they have a screw piece at one end. This allows users to swap out attachments.
"You can swap them out for whichever handle or head you want to match your mood," Kane says. "We have everything from ball chain, to wire rope and bridge cable."
According to Kane and Halpin, the aesthetic of their products are as important as the sensual functions they serve. Kane said one of the business owners, artist Kayla Crowe, found inspiration from steampunk.
"Imagine an alternate reality where steam powered devices were chosen over electrical devices," Kane explains. "You're getting a lot of heavy-metal look. You're getting some of the Victorian era mixed in there."
Halpin says the toys were designed to inspire creative uses.
"It piques your imagination and you go with it, which is what we like people to do," she says.
They showed me a rectangular chunk of rope, which had copper wire running through it.
"This is an electro-fist," says Kane. "As you hit with it, it creates an electrical charge, so you're getting two sensations at once."
Adds Halpin: "The core of sex in its basic form is sensation, so it's just expanding on all of that."