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Speaking Hands and Hearts

The Deaf Leather Community

By Rob Ridinger 

You see them at most major leather contests – the men and women standing on either side of the stage, their hands, fingers and arms weaving in counterpoint to the flood of noise and music, translating the verbal uproar into a silent language whose speakers may be down the aisle, in the balcony, or sitting next to you. Yet the existence of this segment of the leather community has not long been as visible as at present, or so much an accepted part of the landscape.

The earliest acknowledgment of the existence of the deaf leather community in the literature of gay and lesbian studies appears in Raymond Luczak's groundbreaking anthology Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay and Lesbian Reader, published by Alyson Press in 1993. One of the entries is entitled "Interview With A Deaf Leatherman", and was done in October 1992 on the West Coast. In this piece, "Dean" recounts both his history as a deaf man and his personal evolution as a member of the leather community. He noted that he had problems bringing up leather issues within the deaf lesbian and gay population because they had not been educated about the scene. With the exception of the coverage of individual groups and organizations and contests published in The Leather Journal, this remains the beginning of print documentation of deaf leather within the larger world of gay nonfiction literature.


From the very beginning of the contest, deaf leather people have been part of the consciousness and planning of International Mr. Leather. Founder Chuck Renslow had some skill in American Sign Language, and at the second IML in 1980, an interpreter was present, although at that event he sat with a group of deaf people in the audience and did not address them from the stage as would later become accepted practice. Local contests also began to appear, paralleling the organizational structure of the Drummer and IML contests, such as the first Philadelphia Mr. Deaf Leather competition, held on November 19, 1994, at The Bike Stop and sponsored by the bar.

Within the leather community outside the contest structures, the gathering together of deaf or differently hearing people can be traced to the National Leather Association conference held in Chicago in October 1991. During this meeting, a gathering of deaf leather leaders from different parts of the United States, seven men – Michael Felts, Philip Rubin, Bob Donaldson, Rolf Hagton, Jim Dunne, Bobby Andrascik, and Charles Wilkinson – founded the first formal non-profit organization for deaf leather people on October 13. The original name of the group, National Leather Association: Deaf Chapter, would be later changed to the more familiar International Deaf Leather (IDL). Initially, the group also issued a newsletter, the NLA Deaf Leather Reporter.

The objectives of IDL are threefold: to promote awareness of the leather and SM lifestyle among the deaf community, to promote a similar awareness of the deaf leather community among the hearing leather community, and to do fundraising for deaf AIDS services, deaf resource centers and other causes, such as breast cancer. It also initiated the title of International Mr. Deaf Leather, first awarded to founding member architect Philip Rubin in Dallas in 1991. The first meeting of the NLA Deaf Chapter was originally planned to coincide with the Deaf Leather Memorial Day Celebration set for Chicago in 1992. In January of that year the Deaf Gay and Lesbian Center opened in San Francisco, taking as its purpose the need to address the unique needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing members of the gay and lesbian community. As its first director, the board appointed Philip Rubin, bringing the deaf leather movement to new prominence.

The 1991 IMDL contest marked the beginning of consciousness-raising education about deaf culture for many mainstream leathermen and women. For example, the audience had to be taught how to applaud in sign language. Every speech was signed, placing the hearing guests in the odd position of not being in command of the general means of communication, with interpretation for the hearing further reversing the position for them. As noted by then-NLA president Chuck Higgins in his article on the contest published in The Leather Journal, "many of the judges expressed a brand new understanding of the difficulties a deaf gay leatherman encounters when meeting someone new." The difficulties referred to are most visible in bar interactions, with many hearing leathermen suddenly finding that the man they have been trading glances with all evening is actually deaf. Within a scene, establishing safewords and mutually intelligible signals when one partner is deaf and the other hearing poses creative challenges.

Between 1991 and 1996, the contest was held in Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York City and Montreal. Rubin's successors to the title were Bob Donaldson of Baltimore in 1992, in 1993 Chris Mueller of Berlin, Germany (the first IMDL from outside North America), Jose Granda of Orlando, Florida, in 1994 and David Cowen of Indianapolis in 1995. The 1994 contest in New York on June 23 was a benefit for Gay Games IV and Team New York as well as International Mr. Deaf Leather. In 1996, the first International Ms. Deaf Leather title was given to Cool Cat in Chicago when the IMDL contest was held on May 23 as part of the International Mr. Leather weekend. The IMDL and IMsDL contests in 1996 were marked by several firsts – having the contest held in conjunction with IML, having all of the previous holders of the title as members of the judging panel (with other judges drawn from the NLA, IMsL and IML pools) and the initiation of the IMsDL, extending equality of honors to the deaf stage as well.

The women's title was to be awarded every two years. During even-numbered years, the contest is held as part of the biennial conference of the Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf (RAD), with odd-numbered years contests being held in various cities. 

In 2001, the IMDL contest in Seattle saw the addition of a new feature, the Deaf Bear Festival, and was the first time that the Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf had allowed IDL to participate in their conference, creating an opportunity for educating the deaf gay population about leather culture. In citing Washington, D.C., as the site of the July 2002 IMDL competition (as part of the Deaf Two Way Conference), the report in The Leather Journal noted that the D.C.-Baltimore corridor had the highest ratio of deaf residents per square mile of any location worldwide.

The theme chosen for the 2002 competition was "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". Orlando hosted the 2003 contest, where Juan Zazueta of San Diego took the IMDL sash, and Renata Millet of San Diego the IMsDL sash, while the Deaf Bear and Cub Organization awarded the titles of Deaf Bear Cub, Deaf Grizzly, and Deaf Cub. The August 2004 contest in Dallas (held in conjunction with Ms World Leather) witnessed Paul O'Rourke of Philadelphia becoming the latest holder of the IMDL title.


Organizations for deaf leatherpeople have been few to date. The Los Angeles Deaf Leather Association (LADLA), which came into existence on February 26, 1992, described itself as a pansexual group that promoted safe, sane and consensual leathersex activities among deaf and hearing people. In a letter published in The Leather Journal in April 1992, LADLA chair Kevin DeWindt praised the provision of sign at that year's Pantheon of Leather contest, citing it as an "example of how in the near future, leather events may become accessible to deaf/hard of hearing leathermen and women."

Its first event, Leather and Lace, was held at Griff's on July 25, 1992, featuring fantasies, speeches and a title contest for men and women. In attendance were members of the Moonlight Leather Association of the Deaf of San Diego, the oldest such group in California, which was formed in 1991 by a group including Mr. San Diego Leather 1991-1992 Jeff Barnett. Among his stated goals for his title year were initiating closed-captioning on bar video systems.

The Baltimore Leather Association of the Deaf, Inc. (BLADEaf) has been the most successful organization, and although based at the Baltimore Eagle, numbers members from locales as distant as California, Toronto, and Washington state. Among their efforts are bar nights to raise funds for the Deaf AIDS Project. Its first run was held at the Eagle February 21-23, 1992, which marked the beginning of the Mr. BLADeaf contest. Local winner and IMDL co-founder Bob Donaldson went on to compete in the IML 1992 contest, making him the first deaf leatherman to participate in this event.

On August 6-9, 1992, the Deaf International Leather Festival Weekend II was held in Baltimore, and on June 24, 1993, Chris Mueller won the title of IMDL at Griff's in Los Angeles in a contest that featured all four contestants in a show, Leather Express, as well as two deaf drag stars. He subsequently scheduled the first Mr. Europe Deaf Leather contest for January 1994 in London. The international deaf leather community became further organized by October 1994, when the Toronto Deaf Leather Association began having meetings in private homes, open to deaf, hearing and hard of hearing people interested in the leather life.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort was the European Deaf Leather Gay Club (EDLGC), formed during the Brothers and Sisters fifteenth anniversary celebration. Its purpose was to serve as a channel for information exchange and to organize events across Europe, with two initial weekends in Antwerp, Belgium very successful. The initial contact was in London.


The Leather Archives holdings reflect this aspect of the leather community in a number of formats. The sashes of IMDLs Philip Rubin, Bob Donaldson, Alan SPO Schwartz, Daniel Sonnenfeld and Bob Rourke form the core of the collection, augmented by Donaldson's sash for Mr. BLADeaf 1992.

During his title year as International Mr. Deaf Leather 2001, Alan SPO Schwartz collected a number of pins from various bars and clubs, and mounted them all on a leather hanging which he then presented to the Archives. SPO originally stood for "Signed Performance Only", as Schwartz had long been an activist for the provision of signing at leather contests. (After winning the title, he joked that the initials also stood for "Sadist-Pain-Ouch".) Among the pins on the hanging are major West Coast bars such as Los Angeles' Gauntlet and Faultline and event pins from the 2002 Leather Leadership Conference, Tribal Fire 2002, and the IMDL contest. This last is a unique blend of mainstream leather and deaf culture, using as the basic design the leather pride flag, with the addition in the right hand corner of the lowest bar of four hands showing the hand and finger positions which spell out the word "deaf" in American Sign Language.

In his Dallas speech fourteen years ago, Philip Rubin called upon the audience to "be a bonded community – deaf and hearing." As interwoven as the flying hands of their interpreters, the work and contributions of the women and men whose world is silent speaks loudly to their hearing brethren, whose response has been, and will continue to be, "welcome home".

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A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Leather Times, newsletter of the Leather Archives & Museum. The article is reprinted with permission of the author.

This page is part of the disabilities issue of True Tales, which includes articles, stories, photography, and links related to leather and disabilities.

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Copyright © 2005 R. Ridinger. All rights reserved.
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