Cheek. Towel. Cheek.
That's the dress code for participants for Ramrod's Butt Contest.
The disclaimer? The contest may include twerking.
It's 1:30 in the morning on a Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, and one of the oldest gay clubs in the area, Ramrod, is hosting its "Best Butt Contest." It's one of its longest-running competitions since opening in 1994.
Four tourists step onto a 3-foot stage cheek to cheek, as the audience cheers on the one with the best "ass-et." A white towel acts as a makeshift thong, since nudity is not allowed at the club, but no one bats an eyelash as pants and underwear drop to the floor. A large Bostonian man takes home the $50 prize. Some spectators murmur he won because he has more "cushion' for the pushin."
The pocket-size bar can fit 180 people, but looks packed with thirty "bears" (a slang term for the hairy, heavyset, sometimes muscular gay men of the LGBTQ community). Before Wilton Manors was considered one of the gayest cities in America, there was this gay, leather-fetish bar nearby.
The interior of Ramrod resembles a medieval chamber, equipped with hanging cast-iron, jail-cell doors, gargoyles and an electric-style chair known as a "bootblack," where guests can have their feet massaged or leather boots shined. The only lights are from a television screen with looping video of men running naked. The dungeon theme adds to its grimy style, while cigarette smoke dances through the air to deep-house music.
Partners and entrepreneurs Stephen Whitney and Zak Enterline are the men behind the bar. Patrons say they've created a space for acceptance because it caters to everyone willing to explore and learn about the leather-fetish community.
"A lot of people are afraid to come in here, but once they come in they say, 'Oh, wow, this place is kind of cool,''' says Enterline, 67. "They love the music, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. After midnight, we get really crowded."
"We don't want to scare people away. It's nice to have some mystique about what's going on in Ramrod," adds Whitney, 62. "There are people who don't want to come in here. They're afraid. They have visions of what might happen to them. They'll be tied up and whipped and who knows what, but we don't want to play too heavily on that."
Hosting nights such as "Battle of the Bulge" and "Rock Hard Undies Night," the club has gained popularity for its monthly "pig" dance parties, where the owners say guests get down and dirty like pigs dancing to electronic music.
In the early '90s, the two men owned the Jungle Bar in downtown Fort Lauderdale, before developers bought them out. When the opportunity came to purchase Ramrod's current location, the decision was easy. They kept the old leather-and-biker theme, but decided to throw in a twist. The leather and "Levi's" theme is a "gimmick" they said they came up with when they noticed people taking off their shirts at their old club. Now at Ramrod, the leather culture is more about the clothes – leather boots, harnesses and pants – rather than erotic practices.
"Supposedly only 10 percent of leather guys are into S & M," Whitney says. "We did have some popular nights on the patio, where we have a Saint Andrew's cross we could tie you up to, or we have a stockade [a wooden enclosure] we can put your head and your arms through. We always need to improve, though. We need some handcuff stations."
Ramrod bartender Chad Bush, 48, has witnessed its evolution, and according to Whitney, is one of the club's secrets to success because "people love to see the same friendly face at their local bar."
On some nights, he's known to order late-night pizzas for clubgoers. On other nights, he brings in his homemade chocolate chip cookies. Lately, he's been offering cheese plates with fruit. He also serves other snacks, such as bar nuts in dog bowls. Bush is an active member of the leather community, hosting events like 2015's BeachBear Weekend and Pig Week in Fort Lauderdale and serving as a judge for the Mr. Ramrod contest in 2007, 2009 and 2011. The competition was started by the club in 1995.
Darran Mazaika, a San Francisco transplant and retired police officer with a salt-and-pepper beard and matching arm hair, was last year's winner. This October, he'll be passing on the title. The contest bases a winner on community involvement and positive representation in the public spectrum. He took the title for his avid work in advancing rights and advocating for resources against domestic violence in the LGBTQ community.
"I just started coming here because it's a welcoming community, and everyone was friendly and welcomed," says Mazaika, 36. "I saw how much involvement they did in the community. It wasn't just at Ramrod.
Ramrod also sends participants to a national leather competition known as International Mr. Leather in Chicago. Mazaika says he's found a family at Ramrod that has helped him create a brotherhood, a sentiment shared by most of the guys who are now regulars.
Mazaika adds, "It's a safe space. It's a place we can go to be ourselves and be authentic where we don't have to hide who we are."
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Ramrod is located at 1508 NE Fourth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. It is open 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Mondays though Thursdays and 3 p.m.-3 a.m. Friday-Sundays. Call 954-763-821 or go to RamrodBar.com.