Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Not Your Typical Mr. San Diego Leather
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Kurt Wendelborg as we interviewed him April 5; and Kurt in full leather and in the jockstrap portion of the Mr. San Diego Leather contest March 19.
Kurt Wendelborg may look like a typical Leather community titleholder — he’s tall, thin, in excellent shape physically and commandingly butch in his overall appearance and demeanor — but he really isn’t. Most of the Mr. San Diego Leather winners have been people who’ve lived in San Diego and been involved in community activities for years; Kurt had lived in San Diego less than a year when he ran for the title and won. Most of the title winners have been “tops,” playing the dominant role in scenes; Kurt not only is a “bottom” but proudly boasted of that from the stage at Rich’s during the March 19 contest — leaving this author, and probably quite a few others, thinking, “Did he really just say what I thought he said?”
Offstage, Kurt is personable and easygoing but also passionate and dedicated about serving his community and his fellow human beings. He eagerly agreed to a Zenger’s interview and talked about the role of the title contests in the Leather community, his ambitions as a community leader and how he hopes being Mr. San Diego Leather 2011 will help him grow both personally and as a member of the Leather community.
Zenger’s: Kurt, why don’t you just tell me a little about yourself, your background, and how you got here?
Kurt Wendelborg: How I got here? It’s always the million-dollar question. I grew up in Chicago, went to school in downstate Illinois and started my first job at an advertising agency in Chicago. About 1992 they transferred me to San Francisco, which is how I got to California about 1992. After many years in the Bay Area, I wanted to get off the hamster wheel a bit and spend more time doing personal endeavors, so I moved to Palm Springs in 2007. After a couple of years there I realized that the pendulum had swung a little too far in the other direction, and I needed something of a happy medium, a slower pace than San Francisco but still a little bit of urban stuff that I like to enjoy, and that’s how I found San Diego.
I kind of tripped over San Diego when I was in Palm Springs. A buddy of mine had an RV and we started coming down to camp out by the bay in the Mission Bay RV park hang out. Then I started getting out to Hillcrest and North Park, and I realized that this was the place I was probably going to end up. That was a year ago in April.
And a little bit about myself? The statistical stuff? I’m 48 and single, and I do advertising and marketing for a living. I’m really trying to get more of a balance of my personal and professional lives. Luckily, since I’m self-employed and have been since 1996, I have the capability and flexibility during the day to do more volunteer work and community service. I’m taking some classes at junior colleges — personal enrichment, art history, stuff like that — and a creative writing class at UCSD, and really trying to find a little bit more of myself after that crazy pace in my 20’s and 30’s and 40’s, when you’re building your career and trying to buy the house and the car and all that other stuff.
Zenger’s: How’d you get involved in Leather?
Wendelborg: I originally got involved in Leather when I moved to Palm Springs. I was intrigued by it and exposed to it when I lived in San Francisco, obviously, through Folsom [Street Fair] and Joy Alley, but I wasn’t really involved in the Leather community, not by a long stretch. When I moved to Palm Springs, I didn’t know anybody there when I first moved there, but the first guys I started to pal around with were in the Leather community. That’s how I got introduced to that bunch. Over a couple of years in Palm Springs, my journey continued at a bit of a slower pace, but it still moved forward.
When I moved to San Diego, that was really where it grew exponentially. That’s when I first met my buddy Ben, and he introduced me to the whole gang of the Leatherfolk that are now my really good friends.
Zenger’s: That’s something of a surprise, because we’re used to the Leather titleholders being people who’ve been involved in the local community and been in the Leather scene for years. You’re a relative neophyte. How did you get up from dabbler to titleholder that quickly?
Wendelborg: I don’t think that tenure or longevity in any community determines your credibility or capabilities. I think it’s your passion and the energy you put forth, and your commitment to the community. And that’s exactly what I have, I think. I’ve been around a lot of other folks that have been in the Leather community for several years, but they only go out every couple of weeks to one or two events. I’ve been heavily involved with all the members of the community, from just going to the bars and social gatherings to helping some of the 2010 titleholders with their fundraisers.
Zenger’s: How would you explain the whole business of Leather titles to someone outside the community? I can see someone walking into Mr. San Diego Leather and finding it an utterly preposterous event: a mixture of beauty contest and community service. Where do you think that comes from, and where do you think you’ll find your balance?
Wendelborg: Where will I find my balance? A lot of it has to do with education, I mean, especially with people who are kind of putting their toe in and wandering to and from a certain event, and don’t really understand the Leather community but who have an intrigue and an interest in that community and have questions. If they did walk in the door of that contest and saw something the physique or jockstrap portion, I’d want them to understand is it’s certainly not about looks. Well, maybe it’s a little bit about looks, but it’s more about how you carry yourself, your confidence level, if you look comfortable in your own skin.
The whole thing about the titleholder persona is it’s kind of like an onion. You’ve got to peel away the layers and try to explain to people that it’s about community and about credibility and trust and loyalty. Also, a big piece of this title for me is that it’s giving me a new purpose.
Zenger’s: So what is the purpose?
Wendelborg: Well, it’s twofold. There’s a personal purpose, and there’s also a community purpose. The personal purpose for me is to further my Leather journey. I couldn’t think of anything that would educate me more, get me in tune with myself more, from an educational level all the way through to a spiritual level, and getting myself more ingrained in the community. How much more ingrained can you be in the community than you possibly get than to be a titleholder and carry that responsibility?
From a community perspective, it allows me to further my endeavors in fundraising and community support. It’s definitely going to open some doors that may not have opened to me prior. It’s my job, certainly, as a titleholder and as a person and a man, to walk through those doors and carry the title and myself with respect, and continue to educate outsiders about the community and bring people who aren’t in the community back in. I want to be able to reach out to people who’ve taken a bit of a sabbatical or a hiatus, or had to deal with disdain in the community, and try to find some way to drive them back into the fold.
Zenger’s: What are your fundraising priorities going to be? What issues and what groups are you going to concentrate on?
Wendelborg: My big fundraising platform will be seniors. Prior to living in San Diego, I did a lot of volunteer work with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender senior community in Palm Springs, through what they called the Rainbow SAGE Center; and prior to that in San Francisco through the Golden Heights Neighborhood Center. In both capacities, depending on what the needs of the day were, I interacted with and helped support our seniors. I think they’re the most forgotten segment, not only of our community, but society in general. So that would be my primary platform.
Also, I’m actually looking at putting togther something with Anthony [Rollar, Mr. San Diego Leather 2010] for the Leather Archives and Museum. And something else I was thinking about is a more localized Leather history: finding a space to do something about all the information that has been gathered over the last years. There’s been a big effort to try to get some San Diego Leather history put together, and then learning who’s the repository of all that.
Zenger’s: So you want to set up a San Diego Leather Museum?
Wendelborg: It wouldn’t have to be something like that, but it would actually bring more education. What I keep hearing that resonates among a lot of people who are new to the community is there haven’t been a lot of repositories for this information or places to self-educate. You’ve got to reach out and try to find mentors, and certainly people are very willing to give you a hand, but there’s a little bit of work that people have to do by themselves, individually. That’s where I’ve been struggling myself, trying to find the repository of information to help understand not only what’s happened in the community as a whole but specifically in San Diego.
Zenger’s: Some older Leatherpeople lament the effect of the Internet on the community. Things you used to have to learn by seeking out older people and going to community events, now you can just go online and get the basic facts of how to do this or that. It’s getting harder to bring people to events and get them to participate one-on-one when they can learn everything, or at least think they’re learning everything, by sitting at home on their computers. So do you think there’s a need for people in your position to help build a stronger presence at live events; and if so, how do you think you can do that?
Wendelborg: I think “presence” is the key word, and that’s one thing I’m really going to make an effort to do, to put a face to the name. The Leather community has a lot of faces, but the titleholder is supposed to be the pre-eminent face of the community. So if I’m stretching myself across the bridge to any community in San Diego, as long as I’m visible, hopefully that will pique someone’s interest to have a conversation with me, and I can let them know that there are events, there are social activities, at whatever kind of depth they want to engage in with the Leather community. It doesn’t all have to be BDSM or the sexual thing. It can be an initial Leatherman friendship and brotherhood and nurturing, and I think it’s going to be on an individual basis, which is why at this point it’s important to get out there and shake hands and talk to people.
One thing that I have found interesting is a couple of Fridays I have been at the Eagle, and after 10 or 10:30 the dynamic really changes. It goes from the tried-and-true people in the community that we all know and love, and transitions to a younger kind of hipper North Park crowd. Some are maybe coming in for cheap beer or because it’s a cool place to hang out, but certainly there are several guys I’ve met who are intrigued, who are starting to put their foot in the Leather community.
And, regarding your point earlier, those are the guys who are going online. I’ve buddied up with a couple of them, and they come in with the outfit or the clothes. They’ve seen photographs and they know what the look is, but I’ve been trying to work with them and help them understand as best I can that it’s not about the look. It’s about the significance and what I would call the protocol behind it. I’ve actually turned some guys around and got them on as good of a path as I can, based on where I am at this point in my own journey.
Zenger’s: Do you think your professional background in advertising and public relations is going to help in reaching out and building awareness, both within and outside the Leather community?
Wendelborg: I do. I do actually think any profession brings some kind of a talent and education, and that crosses lines into whatever endeavors you’re trying to put on. With my background in P.R. and marketing, I’m certainly a little more cognizant of the need to reach out to the press, and to try to get photographs and photo-ops and all that kind of stuff, make sure stories get arranged for people here, and there’s always some kind of note about what’s going on in the Leather community.
But it’s also about basic business acumen. When you’re asking someone for something, go in, introduce yourself and shake their hand, and make sure you follow up with return phone calls, and all the basic tenets of business that I think a lot of people have forgotten. With respect to what we were talking earlier about people being online, people send e-mails, they don’t pick up the phone.
When I went to put together things for my auction basket in the contest, I specifically made it a point to know when every business owner and manager was in the store, in the establishment, and to go in with a letter in hand, to explain what was going on, introduce myself, and explain how their donation was going to help not only the Leather community in general but certainly their business on the back end. Nine times out of 10, I walked out with a commitment. That’s one of the big things I learned in business: you never walk into a meeting without knowing what you want to get out of it or walk out the door with.
Zenger’s: How do you think being a titleholder is going to affect your personal life?
Wendelborg: It’s already affected my personal life, and I’m only in week three! In a very positive way. I have very much had to shift priorities. I’ve already had to get a little bit more help on the work side so I can spend more time and do due diligence to support this title. I’m seeing that there’s going to be a time demand. There’s also going to be a financial burden, which I’m definitely ready and willing to take on. I’ve got a stipend from Leather Pride for travel and expenses, but I’m going to go through that very quickly.
But I’m in this for the long haul, and part of my own journey is to get myself through it. I recognize those two things: time and money. But anything that you’re passionate about, it’s kind of like a zero-sum budget: you’ve got to put forth all your efforts, whether it’s financial or emotional.
Zenger’s: What do you think is going to happen to you after your year is up?
Wendelborg: Well, from a community perspective, I’m certainly not going to be going anywhere. I think all that’s going to change is that I’m still going to be an extra set of hands to help the next titleholders, both the Ms. and the Mr., and some of the other communities: the Rodeo, the Imperial Court. I’m kind of a fundraising junkie, so to speak. At this point in my life I’ve had my career and made my money and done all the stuff I was quote-unquote “supposed” to do, and now it’s more about people I surround myself with, my friends and my family, and trying to make the world a better place, even a little bit. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s true.
I actually love volunteering. I get an incredible charge out of it. It doesn’t take much to make somebody feel special and important. That’s the whole thing about community service and volunteering. Sometimes people think it’s this really overwhelming commitment, and it doesn’t have to be. If you don’t have money, you have time. A couple of hours a week can make a world of difference to somebody.
Zenger’s: Are you planning to enter IML [the annual International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago]?
Wendelborg: Next year, yes. Anthony Rollar is running this May, and then my chance at that contest will be May 2012. And yes, I’m definitely planning on running.
Zenger’s: When you said you were from Chicago, I had this vision that you were thinking of it as “the hometown boy returns.”
Wendelborg: I hadn’t actually, originally, but it certainly would be a fun coming-home story. It’s the same story you hear about anyone who has a little bit of success, either personally or professionally. I was not always the last kid who was picked for the sports teams, but I was certainly second or third from last. I was always a chubby kid, and I wasn’t the smartest kid, and all that kind of stuff. Just average, but to come back and show people what I’ve accomplished on my own, how can you not feel good about that?
Zenger’s: One thing that struck me when you spoke at the contest is that most of the titleholders have been heavy-duty tops, and you’re not.
Wendelborg: I know. I’m a heavy-duty bottom! Yes, very counter-intuitive to what people think. I’m actually a very aggressive heavy-duty Type A personality, absolutely independent. Being a bottom sexually doesn’t necessarily at all coincide with what your personality type is. In fact, people are usually actually very shocked — like, “You’re kidding? You’re a bottom?” And I say, “I am a top all day long, and I have been for 30 years. I have run my own company, I have rental properties, I have a family I take care of. I have a lot of responsibilities.” I make enough decisions nine to five. I really don’t want to have to make that many decisions after that. That’s when I can shut it off and enjoy myself.
And frankly, what people don’t really understand about the top position/bottom position sexually, is to me, maybe since I am such an aggressive bottom, I feel that I’m the one that’s getting all the pleasure. That’s what happens when you’re a bossy bottom, though. I’m getting 100 percent of the attention. It goes both ways, though. No matter what your sexual perspective, it’s definitely 50-50 no matter what your role.
Zenger’s: Anything else you want to add that we haven’t covered?
Wendelborg: I can’t really think of anything. We covered a pretty wide gamut. I’m three weeks into it and as days pass I’m still kind of ebbing and flowing. Sometimes I’m really charged up and excited, and then sometimes in the morning it’s like, “Oh, my God, what am I doing?” But in general, I’m absolutely thrilled to have this opportunity to grow myself personally, spiritually, emotionally and help contribute to the community. I continue to imagine the experiences I’m going to have and the people I’m going to meet. That’s, I think, the most inspiring thing I’m feeling at this point.
Zenger’s: So it’s essentially telling the world, “Surprise me.”
Wendelborg: Exactly. And I’ll surprise them, hopefully, at some level.