As told to the author by Luke W.
Staring at me and at the rest of the world, emblazoned in huge golden letters above a revolving glass entrance: HILTON CHICAGO. I’m excited, nervous, terrified and, as my friends and I drive into the bellhop portico, I feel exposed. Standing on the curb are a dozen men wearing leather chaps and harnesses fashioned with metal rivets and intricate stitching. Beside them wait well-dressed hotel staff. I put my car in park and everything is suddenly all too real. The staff knows why I’m here. I’m here because I’m kinky. I’m here because the Hilton is the host hotel for the International Mr. Leather festival (IML). This is my first time attending. Until now I’ve pursued my fantasies behind a computer screen.
I’m 22 years old. It’s May 2008.
A bellhop opens my car door. My heart is racing. I can’t help but look at the group of men in leather. I know why they’re here. They know why I’m here. There’s no more hiding.
“Welcome to the Hilton Chicago,” the bellhop says.
“Hi,” I say, bashful and ashamed. He’s judging me, I know it. He knows that I’m gay and that I’m probably going to have sex while I’m staying here. He knows that I’m aroused by what to him must be weird and bizarre. I want to get my room key and disappear.
I knew when I was a boy that I was different. I watched sports obsessively with my father not for stats, brackets, or competition, but for players’ uniforms. Jerseys, pads, helmets—they all drove me crazy. At night, I binged on gay porn and online forums on the family computer. I chatted with guys who shared my fantasies about sports gear. And I was ashamed of every minute. That wasn’t supposed to be me. I was the perfect student, involved in athletics, drama, and student government. Words like “kink” and “fetish” were used in reference to weirdos.
Now I’m 22 and I’m at IML. This will be my first time with people who share my kink. I have no idea what to expect. I’ve heard only that IML will change my life.
As I watch the bellhop put my luggage onto his cart, I see that he has a smirk on his face. He doesn’t give an inclination that he’s annoyed by us, and his politeness is unwavering. He’s almost excited, it seems. He passes us off to the front desk and the woman checking us in seems equally happy to see us.
Are they mocking us? It doesn’t feel that way. It doesn’t feel like they’re judging us at all. The way the staff acts around us—it’s like they want us here. And they do. I’m later told that the hotel staff actually fight to work the IML weekend. To them it’s exciting, fun, refreshing—exposure to a Candy Land underground.
I look around the Hilton lobby. It’s beautifully built—marble from end to end—and full of men laughing, chatting, drinking, toasting. No one is singling me out, no one is staring at me like I’m strange. They’re like me.
I’ve lived life to this point hiding from the “real” world. I spent adolescence afraid to sleep because sleeping involved the pain of waking up to face reality. My family didn’t know I was gay, I knew they wouldn’t accept it, and they certainly didn’t know about my kink. Facing reality meant telling endless lies to avoid talk of “girlfriends.” It meant tirelessly plunging myself into extra-curricular activities in an effort to deflect attention from my sexuality. Adolescence was one crude deceit after another, so full of white lies that it became almost impossible to navigate. My secrets consumed me. I knew nothing of happiness.
And now I’m in the lobby of the Hilton Chicago, for the first time present before both worlds: on one side of me, the men I’ve fantasized about for the better part of my life; on the other side, an army of “normals” working the hotel—those who I’d always been afraid would judge me. But the duality is unlike what I faced in childhood. This time, both sides are aware of one another and they are not at odds. They’re tolerant. No. They’re more than tolerant. They’re welcoming. For the first time I’m standing at the intersection fantasy and reality with no fear. No lies. Only me.
I was told that IML would change my life.
Mr. Twin Cities Leather, the metro’s feeder to IML, is held February 14-16, 2014. For more information, stop in at Twin Cities Leather & Latte at 2717 Hennepin Ave. or visit their Facebook page.
Luke W. lives in Minneapolis.