Strap yourself in, leather and kink enthusiasts--the 2012 International Mr. Leather competition, which draws thousands of attendees and contestants to Chicago from around the globe, is introducing a first at this year's event.
What could the event, now in its 34th year--with its legions of leather daddies, scores of rubber-suited men, and even a few furries in their cute-creepy, anthropomorphic animal costumes--possibly introduce to this diverse and exuberant community? That would be a gay wedding--two, in fact.
"We definitely have a huge first this year," said Jon, IML Coordinator, also noting that both events are private affairs. "Throughout the years, we've had commitment ceremonies, but this is the first year that we will have civil unions. We get a kick out of it. We're slightly amused, actually, because we never thought that wedding planning would be a part of coordinating this big leather event."
In other IML civil union news, this year also marks the first time two of the contestants duking it out for the coveted title of International Mr. Leather are legally married.
"Among the contestants in previous years, we've had boyfriends competing against each other, and partners as well," he said. "But this year, to our knowledge, is the first time that two contestants are legally married. Both are from Maryland, I believe, but were married in the state of New York."
Reportedly the oldest international and leather and fetish event on record, IML takes place Memorial Day Weekend, May 25-28, at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Chicago.
The 2012 IML Leather Market--which also takes place at the Hyatt and is open to the general public--will feature 120 vendors pimping an array of fetish accoutrement and wares ranging in price from a few dollars to thousands of dollars. The market is 100 percent sold out, and there has been a waiting list for vendors since the beginning of April.
Visitors to the Leather Market who have not purchased an event package plan are typically asked to donate $5 to receive a day pass, but starting this year, an all-weekend Pride Pass is also available for a donation of at least $10.
Pride Pass holders will receive a color-coded wristband allowing market entry all weekend and a certificate good for $25 off a Weekend Package for IML 2013. All net proceeds from the day pass and pride pass donations benefits The Leather Archives and Museum in Edgewater.
"The market is such a social focal point, especially during the day," Jon said. "We see an average of 4,000-6,000 people come through the market daily, depending on the weather."
As popular as The Leather Market is, IML's main event is the title competition. This year, the competition returns to the Grand Ballroom at the Hyatt, which is an added convenience for both competitors and attendees, he added.
Around 400 gay leathermen gathered in Chicago 30 years ago for the first International Mr. Leather contest, and since then, IML has grown into an organization that welcomes and embraces all things fetish and all things kinky not specific to the gay community, Jon said.
"This was once a hardcore leathermen event, but today it's much more diverse," he said.
Read tips for leather market virgins here.
The hours of the IML 2012 Leather Market are:
Noon to 7 p.m., Friday, May 25
11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, May 26
11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, May 27
11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday, May 28
--Tony Peregrin is a RedEye special contributor