The annual Mid Atlantic Leather convention and conference wrapped in Washington, D.C., Monday. Three days later, the host hotel for next year's event had already sold out. This only shows just how compelling the event is for attendees who return year after year for the weekend's traditions, fun and sense of community.
Every true Mid Atlantic Leather experience starts with a descent. When attendees arrive at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, which has played host for the last few years, an elevator takes them down to a lobby, which has been turned into, for the duration of the event, "DC's largest gay bar." The peak of that experience comes in the evenings, when the space is packed with attendees chatting, cruising, and patronizing the makeshift bars. This is tradition.
"That's probably my favorite part," Gary Wasdin, executive director of the Leather Archives & Museum tells Out. Wasdin has been to MAL four times now. "That moment where you come in and you come down the escalators into this sea of people. And you're just down there admiring the bodies and the outfits -- every year, they try to outdo themselves."
MAL, a weekend-long annual event hosted by the all-volunteer Centaur Motorcycle Club, is one of the largest gatherings for the queer leather and fetish communities behind events like Folsom and International Mr. Leather (IML). Having celebrated its 34th year this past weekend, the event serves as family reunion, fundraiser, and an important kickoff event in the year's circuit of leather "pageants" that lead into IML.
"It's kind of the big kick off," Wasdin says. "There are certainly other regional events, but this is really the first big event of the year that brings people from all over the country -- all over the world really. In a way this is kind of a launch for 'leather season.'"
And so, a strong showing of IML contestants flock to MAL. Together, they attend the annual IML Judges announcement on Saturday at noon, where that event's organizers announced that beginning this year all attendees who enter the host hotel would be required to purchase some sort of pass.
"It kind of gives them a chance to size up one another," Wasdin says, though contestants do think of themselves as a brotherhood, bonding through contestant-exclusive events throughout the weekend. "You'll see them, maybe they are in a little better shape, maybe they are eating better." One of many traditions they partake in is a group photo on a set of stairs.
As in the United States leather has come to serve as an umbrella term for fetish, and to a lesser extent, synonymous with sex positivity, as has MAL. (For some in the community leather is not an actual fetish, but a visible symbol of brotherhood.) Between different rounds of the competition, organizers host events for a bevy of other kinks. A superhero meet up, where attendees dressed up as their favorite comic characters (sometimes of their own creation) hosted everyone from Storm to Catwoman and at least two Miss Marvels. In a corner, The Punisher (known on Instagram as ThikTool) tied up a completely compliant Flash in a rope bondage demonstration. At a back table, where organizers had provided suits for those wanting to try new things on, someone swapped out their latex shorts that laced up the side, with a Spiderman spandex costume. Costume play continued throughout the weekend, but pups were also quite visible, hosting moshes and meet-ups, as was rubber. Mister International Rubber hosted a meet up, where participants turned up slick and ready to go. But there was still a good deal of leather.
"I come to MAL because I think it's the best even I know of in the U.S.," Mr. Leather Europe 2019, Evert Leerson says. "This is more intimate than IML. And also, leather is my fetish and there's more leather here."
On Saturday, Onyx, a leather club for men of color, hosted its annual gear and fashion show, auctioning off around 40 lots.
"For the duration of this show, I'm no longer Dominion Onyx, I'm now Insufferable Onyx," Dominion Onyx said, in a tone, nodding to how he was playing dictator from stage. The show featured various Onyx members walking an elevated runway wearing pieces like harnesses, leather chaps, vests, corsets, and jockstraps, that were available for bidding. Winners retrieved their purchases by going onstage and physically removing them from models.
"Stand in between these two lines -- if I tell you again you're going to be in trouble," Dominion said sternly to one of the models. He kept the sassy tone up for the rest of the event, raising $3,000, all of which was donated to the Youth Empowered Society in Baltimore. The most expensive lot, a vintage olive green policeman's bomber with a shearling collar, went for $200 after a bidding war between two attendees.
"One thing I have noticed here is the Black community," Mr Leather Italia 2017 Fabrizio Paoletti, who also served as a judge for Sunday's competition says. "It's something we don't have [in Europe] -- a sense of community [exclusively] for Black fetish people and here Onyx, does a great job raising awareness and creating community." The club hosts its own suite, generally open to most, and also puts on a series of events that can make people of color feel welcome in a fetish community where that hasn't always been the case.
"Onyx is one of the biggest reasons I go to MAL," Velvet Storm, Leatherwoman of Color 2019 says. Storm is a member of Onyx Pearl, a group of leatherwomen affiliated with Onyx. "I go there to support the men of Onyx and because I feel safe there." Women who attend have mentioned feeling the same sense of community and support as men, like Gretchen Wildman, the Alaska State Bootblack 2018 who attended for the first time on recommendation from friends.
"This year it was very surprising to me that I had a lot of men hug me, compliment and who were thrilled to meet me," Storm says. She credits International Leather Bear Angel with helping her feel safe after an incident occurred during her first MAL. "He made it a point to keep an eye on me and he made it very welcoming."
Following the 49-year-old Leather Cocktails tradition on Saturday night, where attendees have a buffet dinner while wearing their most formal leather, it was time for competition. On Sunday, six men competed for the title of Mr. Mid Atlantic Leather 2019 in a series of categories: bar wear, physique (a competition about body confidence featuring contestants in jockstraps), interviews, and an on-stage Q&A.
"I never thought that this would be me," Mr. MAL 2018 Gerard Turner said before stepping down to hand his sash over to Emerson Aniceto who won this year's title. "I was the guy that stood in the shadows. I was the guy that wasn't seen. I was the guy that wasn't allowed to get into the club because of the color of my skin. I was the guy that was rejected." But over his title year, the affable titleholder toured most of the East Coast, judging seven titleholder contests and fostering a sense of community. That combined with his public service, led the Centaurs to offer him full membership to their club, in a tearful presentation. Aniceto, who will hold his title in conjunction with his title as Mr. Pittsburgh Leather Fetish, said he will use his new, larger platform to push and promote his campaigns around breast and prostate cancer.
On Sunday evening, the annual closing party, this year was a tribute to Frankie Knuckles and featured a performance by Ultra Nate.
"This is the ultimate flagging moment," she said before launching into her song "You're free, do what you wanna do." Behind her, from the crowd, nine flaggers (who had been dancing on stage independently before her performance as is tradition not only at MAL, but in queer communities) began swirling in variously covered fabrics, as attendees danced. Tradition.