At first, Susan Pitcher had nothing planned but just another gay-beauty-pageant fluff piece. Pitcher, a lesbian reporter and producer for cable TV's Lambda Report, was interviewing Greg Lowe, an organizer of the Rocky Mountain Mr. Leather contest, when she stumbled across a news tidbit she now sees as "a very dark corner we, as a gay community, don't want to look at." Female impersonators, she learned earlier this month, would be barred from the leather-clad men's pageant--unless they came dressed as men.
"Greg told me that women are welcome," Pitcher recalls, "but that men should come in boy drag [men dressed as men] or not at all. I was stunned! Speechless! In fact, he blew my next question."
Once off the air, Pitcher put together a press release outing the Rocky Mountain leather promoters as well as the Triangle Lounge, where the contest is to be held, and calling for an immediate change in policy. Supporting her outrage were several locally luminary drag queens, the Chicago-based president of International Mr. Leather Inc. and Denver's reigning Mr. Leather, Dan Sivers, who calls the no-drag-queen policy "real discriminatory--Amendment 2 all over again."
Fred Valdez, another contest organizer, can scarcely believe his ears. "We have said something along the lines that the Triangle is a leather/Levi bar, so leave your dresses at home," he admits. "We've said, `Just come and have a good time with men.' What's wrong with that?"
Where to begin? Pitcher likes to commence with her objection to the Triangle's decade-old rule that one's face match the gender on one's driver's license. Furthermore, she complains, the small bar at 20th and Broadway--the only leather bar in Denver--is markedly unwelcoming to women. Not that any self-respecting female--friend or faux--would want to hang out there in the first place, she adds. But the Mr. Leather contest is different. "We ought to be there, showing our support," she says.
Leroy Souza, the Triangle's manager of fifteen years and author of the controversial ID-match-your-gender policy, thinks Pitcher is going a bit far. With more than thirty "mom-and-pop neighborhood gay bars" in Denver, he says, it should be easy for drag queens to find a place to socialize or put together a production number.
"But we're the only men's bar in town," Souza says, with a touch of exasperation. "We cater to men who like men who look like men, who ride Harleys and drive trucks, who are not effeminate at all."
The drag queens who do populate the Triangle do so as men, wearing the appropriate macho wardrobe. Or, Souza says, on the rare occasions when they arrive in dresses, wigs and makeup, they present the Triangle doorman with alternate IDs, provided by the Motor Vehicles Division, for which they have posed as women.
"The real queens have two IDs, absolutely," Souza says, "because what if they leave the house with their face on and they get pulled over? DMV does that for them."
(The Motor Vehicles Division's Gloria Breeden denies this categorically. "No," she says. "Each person gets one ID, even though professional clowns ask for two all the time. It's against our policy to do that.")
In any case, Souza says, why all the fuss? "Why do the queens want to come, anyway?" he asks. "It's just a little leather fashion show."
"It's a leather-oriented contest," clarifies organizer Fred Valdez. "We will look at the contestants' physiques; they will appear in a jockstrap or swimsuit, and they will be judged on how they wear their leather and what it means to them." So far, he says, only three contestants have signed up, but he's hoping for five or six by the night of April 15, when the pageant is to be held. The winner gets free tickets to Chicago to compete in the finals. Missing from that national contest, however, will be the unique Denver touch of "a leather fantasy portion, as sort of a talent," Valdez explains. "The contestant is asked to perform on stage in a sort of leather-scened fantasy--maybe the kidnapping or whipping of someone, and they can incorporate as many other people as they want. It's nothing demeaning, though," Valdez hastens to add. "It's only to stimulate the mind."
Which is all Denver drag queen Kinsey Rapport asks of a pageant. "Why should a nationally oriented contest be excluding me?" he asks. "It should not be exploiting discrimination." Should the no-drag-queens rule be reversed, Rapport says he would be happy to leave his sequins at home and wear something feminine yet leather. "By all means, I would come in theme," he insists. His outspoken views on the subject, he adds, have gained him nothing but a series of telephoned threats--he does not wish to discuss from whom--received at the hair salon where he works. Rapport says he's been praised by some of his fellow impersonators and vilified by others, who think the Triangle has every right to cater to a specific clientele.
"I feel that the Triangle ought to be able to dictate what they want, in terms of clientele, on an everyday Friday or Saturday night," agrees Mr. Leather Dan Sivers, by phone from his bathtub. "And I don't see anything wrong with requesting appropriate attire. It is a men's Levi/leather bar, after all, so if a drag queen shows up, that's what she should wear. But I don't think drag queens should be excluded from a contest where we're sending a representative to the nationals."
In protest, Sivers says he plans to attend the event in drag--from the neck down, so that no doorman can complain his face isn't manly enough. As an ardent devotee of the macho leather look, Sivers has had no previous experience in women's garb, but he's not worried.
"I know just about every drag queen there is," he says, "and I bet they find me something real pretty--in leather. My wig's in the washing machine right now--I'm trying to get a spaghetti stain out--and I have a set of birdseed boobies, although I think a mouse may have eaten part of one."
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Even as Mr. Leather mocks the contest that made him famous, the Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire--a mostly-drag organization with a powerful fundraising record in gay causes--has come out in favor of the Triangle. Each year the Court invites the gay community to parties and galas, culminating in an elaborate coronation of an Emperor and Empress--both male. The Emperor's traditional Sunday-afternoon beer busts at the Triangle--sans the Empress, of course--have continued. As usual, at least one contingent of tough men in leather will appear on stage at the April coronation. If any of the powers behind the throne plan to jump on the discrimination bandwagon, they have yet to do so, which mystifies reporter Susan Pitcher.
"Oh, yes, I got this letter from the Court," she says. "They say it's not their policy to dictate anyone's dress code or door rules." (In fact, the Court usually asks the leather men who appear on stage during coronation not to expose their bare buttocks, as a gesture of respect.) "But it's not the same--can't they see that?" Pitcher asks indignantly. "This is Rosa Parks all over again. Do you have any idea how many people of color came out against her at the time? This is a community turning on itself. We better pay attention to this!"
Fine, says Leroy Souza, but don't do it at the Triangle, unless you're wearing leather and the gender you were born with.
"All I'm saying," he sighs, "is, look--come as a boy.