The year in the life of a Leather titleholder has been examined discussed at many round table discussion groups and blogs. My intent is to examine a year in that life of a titleholder from a different perspective, from their partner’s viewpoint. As the partner of Mr. Michigan Leather 2011, Woody Woodruff, things went from busy to a blur when at the 34th International Mister Leather Contest it was announced that “Contestant #8 from Farmington Hills Michigan, Woody Woodruff” was the new IML (http://www.imrl.com/)
During the contest portion of IML, I positioned myself in the audience, not front and center for the best view of the stage, but off to the side, near where contestants walked off the stage for a few steps to prepare for their next category. Not having much time together because of rehearsals, interviews, and preparation for the next category, we both found strength from interactions that lasted a few seconds. From my poorly positioned seat, I was able to give a quick smile or pat on Woody’s ass as he exited and prepared for his next category. Looking back on the weekend, I have a few distinct memories. Being able to tell Woody I loved him and squeeze his hand, even if for a second, was one such memory.
Fortunately for both of us, we started our journey in the leather community at the same time, with our first trip to Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend, CLAW, in 2007 (http://www.clawinfo.org). As our involvement in the community grew, so did our passion and love of the leather lifestyle. The scheduled events became more frequent and networking with other leathermen and leatherwomen across the country took place. Great things were happening in the communities we visited and we both sought out ways to bring that success back to our community in Detroit.
One such way was to encourage our local bar to host a leather night and sponsor a leather contest. After several weeks of arm twisting, planning and working with the local leaders in our community the contest was a go. Woody entered the first ever Mr. Liberty Leather Contest (http://www.thelibertybar.com) with not much more leather then boots, a belt, vest, and chaps. The bar was packed, the event was fun, we raised a lot of money for charity and it really showed what could happen when people step forward in their community. Woody quickly embraced Dave Watt’s work with Mr. Friendly (http://www.mrfriendly.info) and has ever since fought to end the stigma of HIV.
From the partner’s perspective this is where the first changes began to happen in how people treated us differently. As a titleholder, his face and furry chest and butt were much more visible in ads, photos, and events. Our relationship rules and expectations were pretty well defined at this point, but I cannot stress enough the importance of having good communication and clear expectations between partners when one is a titleholder. The spotlight shines bright on the title holder, and often times does little to illuminate the man or woman standing off stage with the boot polish, a change of clothes, and extra business cards. This made me feel like nothing more than a valet at times and took some adjusting to get used to early in his year.
Nine months later, Woody went on to win Mr. Michigan Leather (http://www.mmlweekend.com) and the journey to IML began. Woody experienced more exposure at a state and regional level, increased sexual advances, and a unique connection with the members of his IML class. A class is the group of titleholders that compete in a contest together. The first of the class of 34 brothers we met was when we traveled to Columbus, Ohio to watch Michael Messer win the Mr. Exile contest (http://www.exilebar.com/exile/content). Having participated in small contests in the past, this brotherhood and class concept was foreign to me, but luckily as a partner, I was able to observe the remarkable sense of brotherhood, love, respect and ultimately love that these men began to develop between each other during the course of the year. Soon, events took Woody across the country and this brotherhood launched. Helping out with a toy drive in Toronto, Canada sparked a friendship with Mr. Toronto Leatherman Alex Canning (http://torontoleatherpride.ca) and his partner Nathan. Several months later, we met Mr. 501 Eagle Ron Kautz (http://501eagle.com) and his friend Josh when they drove 5 hours north to meet us for the first time and stay at our house. The first night we were all in gear for a bar party and then next we were all gathered around the dinner table enjoying Easter dinner at Woody’s parents farm.
Needing a place to crash the Thursday night of CLAW, Mr. Chicago Leather, Angel Velez (http://www.chicagoleather.org) was offered our extra bed in our hotel room. Interestingly, when we arrived at the hotel and checked in, Angel was already in the room sleeping with his partner Rapha. I cannot think of a better way to enter my hotel room then to be greeted by two sexy naked men. Stories like these have filled my year and reflecting back on them, filled my heart. Meeting these men, experiencing the events, travel, and friendships that Woody developed is so special to me. While I did not experience IML as a contestant, these men hold a spot near and dear to my heart and having gone through part of the journey with them, I consider them all my brother-in-laws. These great experiences are the same things that I have seen happen on the campaign trail this year with the IML Class of 35.
While I take away many great memories there are often times difficult aspects of being the “First Gentleman” of IML or any titleholder’s husband. Partners need to be prepared for the downside of being a titleholder’s partner. This includes exclusion, sexual competition from others, travel woes, and the stresses of the title year. I have many examples of being asked to move out of a shot so an individual could have a picture with just Woody. Bill, hey you, him, and First Lady are all names I have been called by others despite introducing myself to them as Bob or Papa Bear just moments before.
Having grown as a couple over our five years together, I cannot stress enough that Woody shines because he exemplifies the qualities of International Mister Leather, but also because I know when to step in and save him from the advancements from an overbearing flirt (or help advance the flirting), when to give him a few speaking points before an impromptu speech and when to re-center his thoughts with a simple hug. If you see me rubbing his temples, the keep back 500 feet rule applies. Those of you in the IML class of 35, you should be proud of your partners, because I see them doing the same thing for you. I suggest these partnerships force the end of the term “sash widow” because we are not widowed by their title, but become a partner in their journey. To me, the most important part of Woody’s journey is that it was not his journey alone, but our journey together with the support of the leather community. A leather community that supported us along the way and was a foundational purpose behind the creation of the Michigan Band of Brothers (https://www.facebook.com/groups/523746714309809).
Within a few minutes of winning IML, Woody was center stage standing on the podium with a sea of people surrounding him. While it took me a while to be allowed on stage, our embrace and kiss is another enduring memory. During the last year, things have been fantastic, as we have travelled from one event to another. Woody has well over 50,000 air miles and I just reached 25,000. During this year we welcomed pup Itus, a new pup into our family and created and strengthened friendships around the world. For those of you who are partners of a titleholder enjoy the journey, be part of it, love your partner, and do good within your community.
Even though Woody’s IML year is coming to an end, I am no less proud of him and each day he continues to amaze me. His actions, words, and songs bring out an incredible mix of emotions and motivation that words cannot convey. Is it difficult at times? Absolutely!
Where do we find strength? We find strength in knowing that one day we WILL see an end the stigma of HIV and will see a cure. On that day you can be guaranteed that Woody, pup Itus, and I will be together celebrating and more committed to each other than ever before because of the strength and love experienced during this journey. During this past year, we as a family we continued to find “our sound,” (during his IML speech, Woody made the analogy that we all could be considered musical notes on a page and when assembled in the proper order can create a song that can heal, encourage, and motivate. Moreover, all of us should find our own sound within our Community) our passion, all while deepening our love for one another.
Sir Papa Bear