By Tyesha Best
Even as many use the title holding system to obtain their platform and their voice, we have started to question how heavily we rely on this system for activists and leaders for our community. One of the most important components of the title holding system is our judges. Judges are chosen based on a variety of things: experience, visibility, popularity, and ability to achieve goals set by themselves and the community. I feel we wouldn’t need to have so many contests if we focused more on the outcome of a titleholder’s actions and their specific quirks, not just the physicality and recall abilities of those willing to serve. I feel that there are two ways to change the outcome of those involved in contests via the judges. One, judges can follow up with those who didn’t win and encourage them to follow through on their goals and dreams. Secondly, judges can change the questions they ask of the contestants.
There have been many times that as a judge, I have listened to and watched the same set of questions and answers from judges and contestants alike. Our judging system has become this standardized test to which most can obtain a “study sheet” and pass with flying colors. But maybe the problem is that we as judges are not asking the right questions and find it easier to fall back on those quick call and response answers instead of digging deeper. Maybe the problem could be that those who are seeking to become titleholders haven’t done enough research within their communities and figured out the needs and wants of those surrounding them.
I don’t think asking contestants questions that they can find via the internet work. I’m not looking to see how well they can memorize facts; I’m looking to see how well a contestant can use their leadership, mediation and public relation skills. I’m looking to see how well a contestant would do being an ambassador for the specific title I am judging. I consider being a titleholder, being an political artist. I think when it comes to standardized questions; they are easily remembered and easily forgotten. And when that information is remembered, it is usually applied in a way to help you learn, teach or apply a life lesson. In an article I found by Maria Popova, artist Teresita Fernández, a MacArthur Fellow, spoke about forgotten details a keynote address given to her Alma Mater, Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Arts. Though she is speaking to the school of arts, I’m sure many will agree with me that it takes a certain artistry to be a beautifully successful titleholder and leader in Leather and Kink communities:
“For some inexplicable reason, we seem to believe most strongly not in the actual formal lessons, but rather in those details that get into our heads without our knowing exactly how they got there. Those pivotal lessons in our lives continue to work on us in subtle, subterranean ways.
This kind of amnesia is life’s built-in way of making sure you filter out what’s not very important. You graduate today after years of hard work, immersive years of learning, absorbing, processing, accumulating, cramming, finishing, focusing. There are no more reasons, really, to even make art unless you really truly want to. Of all you learned you probably don’t need to remember most of the technical or theoretical information, as that’s all easily accessible with a quick search. And what you will remember will have less to do with the past and more to do with how it triggers reactions for you in the present. Oddly enough, what we involuntarily do retain is meant to help us move forward. This forthcoming amnesia that awaits you is just another kind of graduation, another step in a lifetime of many graduations.
You are about to enter the much more difficult phase of unlearning everything you have learned in college, of questioning it, redefining it, challenging it, and reinventing it to call it your own. More than in any other vocation, being an artist means always starting from nothing. Our work as artists is courageous and scary. There is no brief that comes along with it, no problem solving that’s given as a task… An artist’s work is almost entirely inquiry based and self-regulated. It is a fragile process of teaching oneself to work alone, and focusing on how to hone your quirky creative obsessions so that they eventually become so oddly specific that they can only be your own.”
That is how certain titleholders, they are so memorable. They take specific details and quirks about them and hone them so finely, that we the public, are able to remember so fondly and so quickly, their title year and their achievements. They are artists of life, who don a sash and go about showing their skills to others in a way that leaves us in awe and inspires us to become a better version of ourselves.
So, instead of asking the same redundant questions, I think it best if we delve further into contestant’s quirks and how they could apply them to their title and goals they wish to achieve. Take Sarha, IMsL 2013 is a great example. Sarha is a ball of spunk, whose livelihood involved fur trapping and had no fear of being politically incorrect. She took both of those quirks and owned them so well, that we still remember and support her artistry of activism in the community, both locally and internationally.
Everyone also remembers Jeffrey Payne IML 2009. He had a southern charm and horrible degenerative hearing diagnosis. He used both quirks to the best of his ability. Through laughter and a slight spice to his political correctness, he was able to completely develop and create the Sharon St Cyr fund during his title year. And though he may actually be an outgoing introvert, he used both of those abilities strongly by charming crowds and having passionate, quiet conversations with individuals.
A non-titleholder? How about Lawna Jocqui of Dallas Texas. She is a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, and a hoot to be around. She wears green so well, even I am envious of how she pulls off that shade, from her make up to those fantastic shoes she wears. She preaches on safe sexual practices, is a self-traveling confession booth (research the Sisters) and shows up to many kink and Leather events, offering her humor and her ability to give to dress to impress, without regards to fitting into any kind of mold. Lawna travels without a sash, or Producer to answer to and yet she inspires others and encourages people to be bold and unique just in the way she presents herself to the masses.
Or take Patrick Mulcahey. A quieter soul and a literary genius who hands out wisdom like they are his business cards. He gives keynote speeches that arouses the spirit so firmly, that his words causes an emotional eruption that steals your breath and oftentimes more than not, brings you to tears, whether you are kink/Leather related or not. He doesn’t have to talk about Leathersex often because it encases him like a cologne as he goes about his every day activity. I mean, it pours from his pours, and it is the ink of his pen when he writes. He doesn’t have to over embellish or swing a very large stick. He speaks when he needs to, he goes to events that he cares about. Every word is important to him. You can tell. He is a quiet storm of a leader.
How about Christina Court? She is a go-getter. She takes risks, and makes leaps of faith and achieves monumental goals that many would think impossible. Christina recently put the finishing touches on a documentary portraying IMsBBs and their history and sent it off to a film festival. This was while she had a full-time job and other various projects and consulting works on the side. And awesomely enough, she’s documenting it on the social media websites for the public to know. All the setbacks, the triumphs, the lamenting of needing more time and the fist pump of meeting deadlines. And now, she’s on the board of the Leather Archives and Museum (LA&M). She does not wear a sash. But she is a endless vessel of courage and inspiration to many and her raw open passion for service and play is a vivid portrait that many would hang on their walls.
How about Sarah Sloane- equally open about life’s challenges and yet offering a wealth of resources and skills to others and being humble about it? Or Kona Katranya- a fiery tongue for racial equality? Or Tobin Britton- a titan among those who pay it forward to others? There are so many one can name in various aspects of our community…
Most of the leaders and longtime serving title holders that we remember and support have certain quirks and personality flaws that we crave to have more of. We want to see how they apply their personality traits and be successful because we want to develop those skills ourselves. I think this is where we can begin with our questions as judges. We can move further away from standardized questions and formulate questions based on how they can use their personality, their quirks, their flaws and their knowledge of history to apply to their present lives.
Instead of judges asking, “What do you want to do for your community?” “Can you afford this title?” and other questions that we could bet the house that many are giving standardized questions to, we can ask different questions. We instead should be asking “Title holders have to find ways to raise monies for their travel funds, name a specific, unique fundraiser you’d like to do to raise funds?” “How can you get the community involved without their thinking you only want their wallets?” “What specific quirks that you have that you feel can be an asset to your success?” “How can we as judges use our skills and resources to help you achieve your goals?” “What do you do for self-care so that you can prevent burn out in the middle of your title year?”
I think if contestants did their research on judges and themselves, they would be able to answer those questions easily. We as judges, would know that contestants know who we are as community leaders. Also, we judges would also know that contestants know their flaws, their quirks and how to access them and work around them. We as judges should also be asking them questions on how to overcome being burnt out, having title holder drop (when they step down) and how to deal with escalated community conversations online and sensitive current events. We need to address how well they would use their diplomatic skills and their ability of self-care during their down times.
But what happens when contestants don’t win? How can judges do more after the tallies are scored and the winners are selected? We as judges can help by remembering that those who didn’t win can still be just as active. Some contestants don’t need to don a sash to make a large impact on the community. If we took a more honest and daring approach to inspiring individuals to get more involved I think we would not have to grasp at straws and beg when it comes to finding contestants and activists.
Sometimes we can be honest to a contestant who did not win and say, “Hey, I don’t think you need a title to get what you need done and I’m willing to help you do it.” Or a judge could say, “I really think you could do well with a title and I want to help you strengthen the areas you were weak in so that it can happen.” I think just saying, “Hey come back and compete! You were great!”, doesn’t help a potential leader get where they need to be on their journey of success. I think if we started back at the beginning and asked the right questions at the judges table, we would then be able to happily direct and inspire individuals at the end of the contests and make them feel as if we truly heard what they wanted to say throughout the contest, and that we want to help.
I want to sit at the judges table, eager to offer my services to individuals who are just as eager to receive and use them. I think the roll of judges should surpass more than just the weekend they are attending the event. I believe we as judges can do more to help our titleholders realize the potential we saw in them. Or else, why do we judge and pick our winners and ask the runner ups to come back? How are we as judges and community leaders using our influence and resources?
I want contestants to look at their judges and know that they can use us. I think contestants are usually given the opportunity to speak at the end of their interviews, but perhaps they should always be given the opportunity to ask each judge a question. I think this would help both sides of the table. Why do contestants not ask, “I want to do this, how can each of you help me get it done?” “What quirk did you have that you felt was a weakness but ended up becoming a strength when it came to your leadership skills and activism?” “I have this plan, but I don’t know how to complete this specific step, how can I get past this?”
I want both the contestant and judges to know that upon giving them their business card or contact information, that it will be used. Judges will check in with former contestants and title holders throughout their journeys. I want Producers to understand, that it’s not about them knowing every detail and history of their title, that producers can develop a strong relationship with their titleholders by teaching them those aspects of their institution throughout their title year. I strongly recommend that Producers find ways to stay involved not just financially (you know, attending as many of their fundraisers as possible and being physically involved with them) but also historically and socially. Take them out to dinner, have chats with them on their history, give them the contact information of all the previous titleholders of your title. I think if title holders would feel more valued if the Producers gave them more personal value.
In the end I think its safe to say that we as a community, aren’t looking for more contests. In the end all we as a community are asking for is quality service, honest help and more inspiration to look to so that we all can help each other grow and strengthen our community in ways its never seen before. We don’t want you to cram your way into a title or struggle finding a space to be active in, we want you to know that we welcome you with open arms as judges, whether you win or lose. Because win or lose, we need you, now more than ever.
Tyesha is an editor at Leatherati.com and has served as NLA-International Policy and Procedures Chair, President of the Dallas girls of Leather among many other positions. She lives in Florida. This column originally appeared on Leatherati and is used with permission.