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— Amy Marie Meek stands poolside at the Hanalei Hotel, an eight-story tropical extravaganza on Hotel Circle. Dressed in a white T-shirt, black trousers, and a black leather vest, with her razor cut (white-wall sides, g'friend) and see-all eyes, she looks both incongruous and dangerous. Any fool can see she's not here on vacation.

If Meek were as straight as the line down the center of the pool, she'd be, at age 30, a sleek-skirted corporate VP. But she's a hefty butch with a taste for kink, so instead of piling up stock options, she's producing a women's event called International Ms. Leather. This summer, imsl, a road show since Meek got her hands on it, huffed and puffed into San Diego.

It's a homecoming of sorts, with the contest, held from '86 to '94 in San Francisco, returning to the Golden State after heydays under Meek in Chicago and Philadelphia. And it's a homecoming of another sort, with the infighting and low number of contestants (11 as opposed to 19 each in '95 and '96) that characterized the San Francisco era, before Meek leased the then-faltering competition for a buck a year. Nebraska gal Meek calls it "the California jinx," and she has no love lost for the arrogant crowd up the coast.

"If I made one good decision in my life, it was to take this thing out of San Francisco," Meek says, eyes narrowed against the sun. "Not everyone wants to worship at Mecca."

On this third weekend in July, the attendees lie like torpid seals on chaise lounges around the pool, raising their heads now and then to cruise newcomers or flag down a designated slave to fetch a mai tai. The newbies, sweating in their leathers on the ride from the airport, quickly shed their second skins and plunge into pool life.

Meek isn't the only one who looks out of place; the Lesbian Nation is not enhanced by piped-in Hawaiian music and tall pink drinks. Of course, there are plenty of people here besides dykes, and unity in diversity is not only the weekend's catch phrase but everyone's heartfelt wish. There's a sizable transgender contingent, including a former imsl now eligible to run for International Mr. Leather. There are lots of gay men enjoying being ordered around by lesbians, who are in turn enjoying being waited on hand and foot by cute guys in chaps. There are plenty of emissaries from the Bisexual and Heterosexual Nations, some trailing husbands to prove it. The bis are willing to let mystery remain, but several hets find it necessary to announce that they are straight and not narrow at every, well, crook in the road. Flying on unity, the lesbians renounce a lesbian agenda, though what that might be remains as murky as the bottom of the koi pond. The truest observation is that while this event does appeal mainly to lesbians, everybody yearns to be one big tribe of perverts.

Social responsibility is the other overriding theme, and it wears many faces, from "explaining our lifestyle" to doing good works, from raising money (the Eagle in San Francisco has donated more than $5 million to aids organizations) to not playing sex games in the parking lot. Meek has posted signs in strategic locations:

codes of conduct

Please be aware that we are not the only guests at the hotel. Please respect consensuality. No public indecency or play. Those choosing not to abide by this rule are subject to removal with no refund.

"I had a lot of trouble getting a hotel," Meek says when I ask about the signs.

Canadian publisher Mary Dante (of the magazine Boudoir Noir) gently chides Meek in her speech during the judges' tallying. "So I was in the parking lot doing a teeny scene, just being in role, really, and I suddenly wondered, 'Am I being nonconsensual here?' and I thought, 'No, I'm being Mary.' A security guard came up, and we spent a long time talking about sex, and I bet he'd never done that, talked to a woman he didn't know in a real way about sex, and I realized this is a big part of why we're here."

Celebrating unfettered sexuality is indeed the point, overshadowing the selection of imsl 1997 on Saturday night. The leatherfolk are ecstatic to be in a place where someone might know what they want, where they can dress in fetish wear, where they can role-play a 24-hour top/bottom relationship without interference from work or kids, where they can "live the fantasy."

In the midst of all this, around the pool and at the workshops, the 11 hopefuls politic, pontificate, and preen or look buff, depending on their gender ID. They know they're a sideshow, but they're determined to have their day in the sun. Meek is adamant: "All this is for them," she says, with a grand sweep of her arm that includes palm trees, judges, the 14-person hot tub, the contestants' night out at Belmont Park. "I just want them to have a good experience."

The judges are as sober as ... you know. On Friday, they grill each contestant, peppering them with questions ("Do you think leather contingents should tone down their dress and behavior at events like Stonewall 25, knowing the right wing is filming every move we make?") and hypothetical situations ("Several members of a club stage a Nazi interrogation scene at a meeting, and half the group walks out in protest. How do you mediate?"). Motives are probed, grasps of pertinent history and literature tested. imsls are expected to make 48 to 50 public appearances during their title year, many at nonleather events, and the judges are very serious about choosing someone who has vision and an ability to be both likeable and confident.

"The whole premise of imsl is to be a positive female role model," Meek says. "Of course, there's ego involved, but I like to think people run to work for the community and to be a visible resource for leather and nonleather alike. What it's really about is mediating, getting people to sit down and talk to each other. You can do that without a title, but having the title gives you more mike time."

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