Meet Ms & Mr NJ Leather 2023: Sandi Smith and Michael Zito-Govert

2023 Ms. New Jersey Leather Sandi Smith and Mr. New Jersey Leather Michaerl Zito-Govert
2023 Ms. New Jersey Leather Sandi Smith and Mr. New Jersey Leather Michaerl Zito-Govert

After a long hiatus, the return of the New Jersey Leather Family has selected who will represent the community around the state and around the country. This year’s title holders as selected by their peers are Sandi Smith and Michael Zito-Govert, the reigning Ms. and Mr. NJ Leather 2023.

Sandi was very candid about how important representation is for her as a bi-identified woman. Sal Susino, patriarch of the NJ Leather Family (founded with his husband, the late Dion Daly-Susino) approached her to run. Sandi had wanted to run for years, but only recently had the opportunity. Her husband, Terry, had encouraged her to run, and when he passed about two years ago, her passion for volunteering put her on the path to the ultimate volunteer role — Ms. NJ Leather.

Sandi is the first bisexual female to hold this role. Volunteering is in her DNA. When she found the leather community in 2011, she started moving among the New Jersey Amazons including past Ms. NJ Leather title holders Morgaine, Jessica, Ms Sandra, Baby Girl, Fidget, and Lisa. She started attending events including the Step Aside party, Sinner Sundays, and more. She had not been around the LGBTQ community that much before, and often was the only woman at many of these events. She kept coming back and soon offered to help with events, and from there, her opportunities blossomed — Chili Cook-Off, Kinky Carnival, Santa Saturdays staffing. JR and Ernie told her to just show up and she was idle no more.

Sandi had staffed the tables at the leather yard sale last year, and has been asked to become one of the hosts for this year’s event.

Volunteering has been the better part of the most recent eight years or so since she became involved with the NJ Leather Family and continues to be her prime motivation. She won the 2019 Ross DeRose Community Champion Award, which was the one awarded immediately prior to COVID stopping the world. Initially, she felt a bit intimidated being around so many rugged leather men. But then she realized that her place was very much there. Now she hopes that being visible and representing encourages more women to volunteer and step up to join in and enjoy being part of the community.

“It’s important to give back, in addition to participating in the events, and connect communities. It is difficult to ask for help for yourself when you’re used to giving. It’s easy to ask for help from others or the community,” Sandi said, “it is much more difficult to ask for assistance for myself. I needed to borrow leather for the contest as there was a water challenge at my house where I had to put my pieces in storage.

“There were a lot of people represented in my run in the different competition events. I wore special leather suspenders I had made for my husband that he never got to wear. Ernie, who made them, tailored them for me so my husband, Terry, was there with me. Formal wear?! What was I going to do? Morgaine stepped up with Spanky’s ballgown and Becky granted me the use of one of his capes, and Rai did my makeup. Even though I hadn’t really met Spanky, his legacy was there for me when I needed it. There were many people who supported me, who truly helped me with the whole process.”

Sandi’s plans for her reign include promoting The Center in Asbury Park for people living with HIV and making more people aware of its work and needs. She also wants to work with food banks, planning to meet with Harley-Davidson in Ocean County to continue the food drive that Baby Girl began during her reign to get that going again. Sandi has big plans for getting volunteer organizations working better together, and communication is a big part of that. She wants to find a way for her reign to bring back and bring online some programs that need more love. It is important to represent women in the leather family from the entire spectrum of the community.

Mr. NJ Leather is Michael Zito-Govert. His leather journey began decades ago in Baltimore, in his early 20s when he first found a leather family. He’s grown up with the community. About 11 years ago, he was already a practicing nurse and RN. He started work as a nurse case manager, then segued to bedside nursing where he really found his niche. He was working in San Diego and then moved to Seattle, but no one was hiring skilled nurses. When his brother invited him back east to continue his path toward his nurse practitioner degree, he arrived in New Jersey. Asbury Park was on his radar for some time.

Taking the first step toward community was easy, as events sometimes are when they are meant to be. Paradise was the first bar Michael visited. He attended a Sinner Sunday and met helpful community folks who connected him. In fact, his very first contact was with JR, the very first Mr. NJ Leather, as well as Daddy Dion and Daddy Sal. They are all patriarchs of the NJ Leather Family. Add to that list the venerable Tom Savage, who just so happened to be there.

Leather Clubs that represented at the 2023  New Jersey Leather community contest at Paradise
Leather Clubs that represented at the 2023 New Jersey Leather community contest at Paradise in Asbury Park..

Best of all, he actually met his husband, Keith, that same day. He’s a lifetime associate member of Command and there are a lot of links to the family here. The threads of family run everywhere in the Northeast. This was all just a month before beginning his first job here — and while it took the state of New Jersey a while to transfer his nursing license, other aspects of his life were moving very quickly.

Since arriving in New Jersey, he’s completed his bachelor’s degree and then moved on to his master’s degree which granted him his APN (nurse practitioner) credential. This past year he completed a doctoral degree in nursing practice (DNP), the culmination of a longtime goal. Dr. Michael’s practice lights his life, and now he feels his work is to share his knowledge and experience.

“My goal and platform for 2023 are about education. I feel that the divisiveness we face today, the hatred and bias and ignorance, need to be faced head-on. Treating incidents that happen as teaching moments as lines get blurred between bias and actual hatred. I want to educate the people who feed into the bias and hatred to help them learn,” he said. “I see what people in the LGBTQ community endure from those who don’t really know us. I want to show them the ways we’re the same and discuss the ways that we’re different. I want to do everything I can to educate the community, the way I educate medical professionals on how to treat trans, HIV, and gender non-conforming patients.”

He feels more people will listen when we approach them with more positive attitudes. We can change one person’s mind, and Michael counts that as success.

One of the challenges Michael knows he’ll face is within the LGBTQ community itself. Many parts of the community have less understanding of the leather and kink communities and the way that expression is embraced. “I don’t know that there are any surface issues in the larger community, although some look down on the need for a title holder and the purpose of the position. I am a cis-white man and that’s a challenge to many. Knowing where I’ve come from and that I’ve seen the hatred, and I’ve been treated badly due to my HIV status or past drug use or that I am a leatherman, then I can share my lived experience and then I can be seen as a proponent rather than a problem or a hindrance.”

Both title holders urge the LGBTQ community to support each other as the community needs to be supporting everyone during these times.