Here in Italy, the word ‘leatherman’ is more likely to be misinterpreted as the name of a talk-show host than associated with the culture that gave rise to the sex positive movement. Learned people might remember Tom of Finland and the aesthetic that stereotyped leathermen for decades, later appropriated by countless pop icons. In the Internet era, however, even worldwide most people ignore what the leather scene did for all alternative sexualities, and what it keeps on doing.
This is why, a few months ago, I reached out with Fabrizio Paoletti, the current holder of the Mister Leather Italy title. The mere fact that it took almost one year to make this interview says a lot about how the role kept him busy in these months – but we finally managed to set it up, and this is the result…
Hi, Fabrizio! Would you tell us about you?
Hello. I am an almost 53-years old man and a gay activist for LGBTQIA rights. The acronym indicates Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual people: an often contested idiom due to the difficulties in understanding all the identity shades connected to gender, sexual orientation or genetic morphology specifics. Things are however even more complicated, because any characteristic is but one part of our identity. I cannot omit certain characteristics to define or recount myself: none are my whole, but any is an important piece of my personal identity.
In particular, I am an Italian citizen born in 1965 in a very sexist and homophobic country, and I long lived in a strongly repressive climate about what I felt within me. After earning an electronic engineer’s degree I married my longtime female fianceé and I became the father of a beautiful girl. In 2001 we separated when she was three and in shared custody, and I got my chance to reappropriate my primary identity as a gay man. In those years gay parenting wasn’t as accepted as today, so I felt forced to find a way to conciliate my homosexuality and my fatherhood, so I became an activist.
My fetishistic side had been similarly compressed since I was a boy, and only in the latest years I could live it fully with my current partner, who shares this interest of mine. In my case it stems from boots as a virile symbol of male sexual potency, and they are a founding component of my style and sexuality along with leather uniforms, that complete a strong, powerful male imagery.
Let’s start from the basics: what does the Mr. Leather title recognize, and what does it entail? And, by the way, how did you decide to enter the contest and win it?
The Mr. Leather Italia title has a long history going back to 1994. Its character evolved through the years around a meaning of representing the Italian leather fetish community. Like Mr. Rubber Italya and the more recent Mr. Puppy Italia, it is promoted by gay leather fetish clubs, which are organizations born to create socialization initiatives and to spread the knowledge of this subculture. They are all around Europe, and in the USA they have a very articulated history with its roots in the Fifties, when the soldiers returning from WWII came back with the experience of military life and hierarchized relationships. Since none of that existed in the civil world, they created groups who shared an interest in non-feminine gays, closer to male stereotypes and with a kinky-BDSM sexuality: an erotic milieu that later became mainstream. In an era when homosexuality was still considered illegal in many countries, those groups organized themselves as bikers clubs that got together in international organizations. Europe has the ECMC – European Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs, that still plays an important role in the community even if online social networks now make it far easier to keep in touch all over the world.
But, back to the titles, they act as a serious push for those sharing these interests to promote their own personal leather identity and that of their clubs even in respect to other clubs and countries, contributing to the relationship network that constitutes the true foundation for the sharing and solidarity of our community. The candidates commit to making themselves visible and accessible, taking part to national events like the LFI Meeting held in November in Milan, the Rome Fetish Pride Italy of December and Essence of Fetish, again in Milan, where Mr. Puppy Italia is elected. We also travel abroad for the biggest events, just like our foreign counterparts come over for the club birthdays, the Italian titles contests and, to mention a personal passion of mine, the upcoming Boots Hookup in Padua.
My personal motivation to participate was the lifetime interest for fetish and the will to be a visible part of this community, since being a leatherman is my true identity. As I previously mentioned, this fetishistic side had been rather repressed in my career as an activist, so it was important for me to be able to bring it to the light. Part of the motivation was also the prizes, including a small travel contribution and discounts on boots, but also a photo shooting with a great specialized photographer and a cool leather harness. The competition was moving and a great adventure I lived along with two candidate friends who share my fetishistic interest, not to mention the places: we visited Venice as a leather group among gondolas and canals, and the ceremony was held at the spectacular Valbona castle thanks to the LFITALIA guys.
The Leather scene is very active in North America. Even too active according to some, criticizing the endless stream of Mr. This and Mr. That churned out by a large number of events – but besides exhibitionism there are good reasons for such activity. In a nation lacking welfare and plagued with a punishing idea of insurance, one of the main duties for the winners is to raise funds for the assistance of other leathermen. Others deal instead with social initiatives against discrimination, or to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Do these aspects exist in the European Leather world too, and in the Italian one in particular?
This sort of activity is quite common on the European scene. It is the starting point for historical communities fighting the stigma against HIV-positive people with social work against prejudices and homophobia, not to mention awareness-raising about STDs and HIV infection in particular. The latest years have seen important projects such as the Rainbow Railroad campaign to free Chechen homosexuals imprisoned in internment camps due to their sexuality, the #Chechnya100 social campaign and the information about the correct use of PreP against HIV contagion among those persons who have difficulties using condoms.
The problem in Italy is the endemic homotransphobia, as well as the ruling heterosexism. This condition makes it harder to create a solid and wide community able to take a stand in such fights. Sexuality is seen as a very private business and participating in pride marches is sometimes still a problem for gay and lesbian people. Then you also have exceptions such as the Rome Pride, where the Leather Club Roma community has backed for 19 years various initiatives for kinky sexualities, working along with other LGBT associations and promoting cultural events about BDSM and fetish sex. The Leather Friends Italia and Leather & Fetish Milano clubs are also very visible during the marches.
Back to our subject, past title holders didn’t have much of a community to stand beside them in promoting social campaigns of prevention or fight against discriminations, but things are evolving lately, and our Misters have been working toward a free, conscious and safe sexuality – also through visibility and fundraising campaigns.
One of your initiatives I really liked was Babbo Gay (tr.: Gay Dad). Can you tell our readers about it, and especially how it was born?
I took the example from my predecessor, Mr. Leather Italia 2016, who had launched a support campaign for the initiatives of Arcigay Naples and for his own participation in International Mr. Leather (IML) 2017. I also invented a visibility and fundraising campaign to promote the Italian Leather community through my participation in the IML contest. I centered it upon my personal visibility as a gay father, activist and Mr. Leather: its full name is ‘What if Mr. Leather Italia is my gay dad’ on Collettiamo, and it is meant to show how the Leather values are fully compatible – or actually exemplary – of the parenthood and childraising values since they are founded on respect, listening, negotiation and trust. Affective and sexual relationships within the gay Leather community and in the kinky ones in general are truly based on principles that are rarely considered by the blindness of heterosexism, whose relations are sometimes merely founded on standard or imposed life and family models, more than on free and conscious choice.
The project came out of the wish to put the Italian title to value within my Florence, in a climate of total sharing of intents with my daughter, her boyfriend the photographer David Pestelli and my partner. The photos capture our walk in the center of Florence, highlighting historical and contemporary elements we could relate to in a perfectly open way, without hiding! Besides financing my travel to Chicago, the funds will go to the Rete Genitori Rainbow association that helps LGBT parents with children from heterosexual relationships, and to Il Giardino dei Padri, a fatherhood forum promoting a non-stereotypical view of fatherhood within the international MenCare initiative.
It is now inevitable for me to ask you about your relationship with your daughter. Was coming out to her difficult to manage? Both for you and for her, I mean.
Oh, yes. It was difficult and in my case it was a double coming out, for my homosexuality and for my non-standard sexuality. I had always instinctively felt that expressing myself honestly couldn’t hurt my daughter, that feeling good with myself and following my natural gay inclination was something that made me a happy and fulfilled father – hence a gift to her instead of a repressed and unhappy dad. But there were many fears: the lack of awareness of the terms of our inner troubles, our lack of recognition, the fear of the outside world and of exposing one’s child to the sarcasm of others… lots of big fears and a great restraint.
This is why I first approached Famiglie Arcobaleno in 2007, which was important because meeting gay parents and their children showed me how you could concile being a parent and in a gay couple, something I wasn’t totally clear about. Coming out to my daughter was very natural: I had never completely hidden my nonverbal affection to my then-partner when he came visiting and she clearly felt how our relationship wasn’t just friendly. She mentioned it to me and to her mother: «dad plays gay with Luca», she says… but that wasn’t an issue at all for her. When Luca and I went separate ways for a while due to a crisis she was almost 10 and she thought that maybe I wasn’t gay after all since he wasn’t around anymore. That was when I felt the need to clear things up. I didn’t want Lavinia to see me as a sad and lonely heterosexual man when my affective life was full and intense.
My coming out was a big confirmation for her of everything she had imagined, and we could clear up what roles and relations there were between everyone in my life. Revealing my kinky sexuality was more recent instead: it effortlessly went through the leather biker dress style I have been using more and more openly in my free time, and through the outfits and boots I bought during my travels. When Lavinia became of age and I decided to enter the contest I had her read my submission, where I had written about being a fetishist since my childhood, and that possibly better cleared some aspects of my aesthetic extravagance that could have looked odd before, allowing her to get my full picture. I believe the possibility of authentically know your parents to be a wonderful gift for a child.
Generally speaking, both her mother and I have always treated the subject of sex pretty openly and without any religious trapping. We always talked about it as a pleasurable enrichment of human relations: not just like a side of affectivity, but like an especially good thing to share with someone you really love – and also as something to protect, both from diseases and unwanted pregnancies. In that sense I feel I did a great work along with her mother to properly educate her.
Stories like yours make many assumptions and prejudices all of us have interiorized about the social side of alternative sexualities instantly evaporate. After all, it is true that dress, role, the practices and identities that characterize every person are nothing compared to the person itself, to his human side. We do live however in the shadow of the Vatican and in a country which isn’t especially famous for its open-mindedness, not to mention in a historical time of awful fascist-patriarchal resurgences all over the world. What reactions a person like you, so openly non-standard in his identity, encounters?
My public coming out as a leatherman came last year with my title victory. Until then that side was only known to a private circle, but I had begun wearing leather and boots more and more frequently in my free time, so that side of my sexuality was somewhat understood among those who knew me more intimately. An important aspect of this was my activism and the many courses I took to study sex-related matters, including a counselor certification I recently completed. Studying kink, its de-pathologization in the DSM5, SSC-based BDSM… I really scrutinized these topics through the years and this gave me a stronger awareness of myself, dissipating any doubt about being “wrong inside”, in a path of growing self-acceptance. This self-work influenced my family, affective and social relations, also having a part in making me win the Italian title.
During our pre-interview chat you mentioned your disappointment for something other leathermen also related to me, which is how the founding culture of the Scene is often underappreciated in favor of plain cruising. Can you tell me more about it?
It was during the Mr. Leather Europe event, where this year’s performances by the participants were centered on identity themes – meaning socializing and teaching – but mostly of an artistic and body and outfit exhibition genre. Fetish was almost absent, reduced to a fashion statement, and BDSM even less present and powerless – nothing more than an aesthetic decoration.
In the previous years many performances had been powerful instead, bringing on the stage strictly fetish/BDSM situations. The participants were required to show their personal side, which I did as a Mr. Leather Europe candidate for my own brand of eroticism in addition to my social representative side. Even the contest itself was held during a naked party, so I felt like the fetish aspect of my performance was received like an alien in Central Park.
Glamour prevailed over an authentic show of the Leather philosophy: I have seen our community in its socially acceptable and defanged mode, more than in its disruptive power of fighting for sexual freedom rights and for legitimizing any consensual and respectful form of sex. It was a bit like those LGBT initiatives focused on normalizing differences through the promotion of a regular rainbow family myth, while they should shout the freedom of willful relationship and sexual choices with full legal rights, but not necessarily molded on hetero-familiar models.
That disappointed me a bit, but I was also sincerely appreciated by various community members who recognized the value of what I had brought to the stage with my partner. All in all it was a very stimulating experience: it led me to make a professionally shot and edited video of our boot worship action with our good friend and Italian leatherman Leather Big Wolf of Haus Mein Gott, who also made a photo shooting. For me this was a challenge and a nice opportunity of offering an authentic contribution to our community of gay boot fetishists.
My previous question introduces a doubt that grows in the perplexity of outsiders toward every erotic subculture: that, at the end of the day, they are just self-important circuses badly hiding mere groups of horny people seeking to get laid. In my own experience of the BDSM scene, for example, I learned that many persons may come in under this assumption, but once they are exposed to kink culture they come to a quick evolution of thought. I don’t know, however, if this is also true in your scene. How do you see the role of these more “serious”, so to speak, sides and where do you see them be heading?
It is plain for all to see that after the halt caused by the decimation due to the spreading of AIDS in the Eighties and Nineties, sex within the American and European Leather world became more compressed, and now its members are in a rather mature age range. You can see curious youngsters approaching it sometimes not finding the right dimension for them to experiment in, and their fears in getting close to an apparently dark world are understandable. The current kinky scene however features countless shades and types of interests, with different practices and fetishes from sporty to rubber, from lycra and spandex superheroes to military, workmen and leather, with wide price ranges for the erotic “uniforms” that better fit anyone’s style – and there are also persons who live a nonstandard but fetish-less sexual dimension, without using any uniform. Some styles are of course more accessible and acceptable such as the “sporty and sneakers” one, and lately the puppies scene is growing strong. When there is a true interest for whatever practice, people find their sense of belonging to a group that shares it and communities spontaneously affirm themselves. An example can be the rubber Spanish community in Barcelona, or around Manchester in the UK, or in Switzerland, which came about thanks to a bunch of guys authentically enthusiasts for these fetishistic passion. Today Leather is also seen as somewhat ancient and traditional, not to mention expensive, but by browsing around you can find affordable items and secondhand markets.
From the standpoint of helping others in their approach with alternative sexuality, an important method is to aggregate people who enjoy their fetishes and who can share their experiences, information and technical knowledge on how to live eroticism in a safe and healthy way. Right now I and a group of fetish friends are trying to kickstart a community in Tuscany.
I was actually referring to a cultural growth a bit different from mere fetishisms… Anyway, before concluding I’d like to know your opinion on another aspect that always has me baffled, that is the separatism of the Italian gay world from other realities that would gladly accept leatherfolks for example, and that are totally excluded instead. What feels especially odd to me is how normal it is abroad to see events where every sexual orientation is represented, leather communities integrating women, and so on. You know what they say… «why can’t we all just go along together?»
This isolationism is well known, and it is founded on the need to protect yourself from a world that makes you feel inadequate and unfit: a simple imprinting of homotransphobia and discrimination we all receive, and from which it may be hard to get free. I still remember my agitation when, with my heterosexual past, I first went to a gay club fearing that I would be recognized on the way there and outed as gay, or that there would be cameras to taking videos of me. When I found just very “normal” boys and girls, without ostrich feathers or overdone makeup – not that I’d criticize those who feel good with that look – I understood how strong and pressing the stereotypes of the feminine gay male or the butchy lesbian are in our minds. If you just get past this first barrier, which is caused by interiorized homophobia, frequenting gay-only clubs you feel in paradise, where you can be yourself without any social pressure of having to show your macho side if you are a man, or having to faint for a hunk if you are a woman, without having to make or take a sexist joke. Roles are not defined by any rule in those places, and feeling sure you won’t be judged is something terribly necessary for many persons who still cannot break free of these daily pressure, and who therefore want to feel among peers in their nights out.
I must say, however, that my recent experience with the heterosexual – or better, pansexual – BDSM world, that is very openminded under this aspect, was very positive, welcoming and interesting as I discovered the countless shades (not of grey, please!) and different sexualities that everyone brings to it. Unfortunately, not everyone can make this jump and feel at ease facing a part of the world they live as hostile or at least unrespectful of their sexual orientation on a daily basis. Maybe there also is some rigidity in what gay venues offer in terms of events and type of clubs. I guess that in Italy we still have a long road ahead for our emancipation from the chains of homophobia and heterosexism, and we are still suffering for that.
Last question: what are your plans for the future, when you’ll pass your title along to your successor? And, more in general, what will the future be like for Leather?
I already mentioned the effort I am making with some fetish friends from Tuscany to create new kinky events there. Let’s say that I am conscious that it will be difficult for me to shake off the habit and the attitude to show off and to commit like I did in these years of LGBT activism. Even if I left the board of the Rainbow Parents Network, I remain a volunteer and activist in the fight for sexual and affective freedom from the trappings of the stereotypical hetero-sexist world.
In the last months I also completed my counselor certification and I would love to launch some project to support people exploring their innermost desires, also in the sexual field. Then there are the personal projects: my rather stimulating job, my family, my home, and the personal passions I have left behind until now. Maybe my love for art, where I would like to further experiment with a stronger focus on self-exploration with sexual diversity, fetish and BDSM.
Finally, I would like to remember two persons who left me with excellent impressions during this year and who helped me understand the right and useful way of approaching the exhausting title year. First is Joe King, Mr. Leather Europe 2016, who was in the jury when I won and who simply recommended to «be yourself!»: simple and obvious, but to be ourselves we are supposed to know who we are – and this pushed me to keep my focus on my values, which I am bringing to the IML contest. Then there is current IML Ralph Bruneau, who I met at the Berlin Folsom. He is a therapist who doesn’t hide his sexuality, kinkiness and love for gay nudism. He sponsored the Born Perfect project against gay reparative therapies, which are in fact illegal and unethical mind reconditioning as it is practiced in the USA by religious institutions opposing medical science, that has proved how these “therapies” are ineffectual and dangerous. This really moves me: the faith in knowing that we are all born perfect and that we can discover ourselves simply by accepting us, for our own good and of those who surround us and whom we love.