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You never forget your first time at Mid-Atlantic Leather, even if you’ve been attending for decades.
“I happened to be in the middle of the crowd for the national anthem, surrounded by hundreds of gay men, and I got goosebumps,” says Bear Man, co-founder and CEO of Ft. Lauderdale’s Leatherwerks.
Obviously a lot has changed since Bear Man’s first moment in 1994 during Leather Cocktails. Hosted by local leather group Centaur MC, MAL has grown in nearly every way, as have a number of similar fetish events around the country where Bear Man sells his wares. “I’m the only vendor at this event who’s been here since it started a vendor market,” he says. “MAL is one of my favorite events because it’s no drama, no hassles. The Centaurs are great people.” To this day, the potent mix of brotherhood and patriotism on display during Leather Cocktails remains a goosebump-inducing highlight for Bear Man.
The Saturday evening reception famously grew out of a gathering over cocktails among a group of leathermen in a New York hotel suite in 1976. Its centerpiece moment is the dropping of a metal cockring into a glass receptacle. This year, the honors were done by Centaur Patrick Grady, who has served as the volunteer-only event’s chairperson for years. Grady was so moved by the honor, he wept, such is the profound emotional impact of the signature moment.
Leather Cocktails is the heart of an overstuffed weekend of activities and parties held mere blocks from the U.S. Capitol at the Hyatt Regency on New Jersey Avenue. Cocktails is known for attracting the most passionate and established members of the community and also includes an impressive Parade of Colors, where representatives from scores of leather groups from around the world assemble on stage in a powerful show of unity.
Among those onstage this year was Joseph Menick, the 2017 Mr. Providence Eagle, one of many titleholders preparing to compete in the leather community’s pinnacle contest, Mr. International Leather, held in Chicago over Memorial Day. The Rhode Island resident has been hooked on the look of leather ever since he first discovered Tom of Finland’s iconic, erotic drawings. “I like how I feel in it, I like how I look in it,” Menick says. “I’m comfortable in it and it’s part of me.”
That was true across the board at Leather Cocktails, where drinks were flowing from stations set up around the ballroom — but only for those who adhered to a strict dress code. And who better to enforce that than the D.C. Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence? Don’t let their demeanor or disguise fool you: The friendly and playful group of frocked men with painted faces proved as stern as real nuns, acting as security bouncers standing atop the escalators down to the ballroom. On the Sisters’ watch, you needed more than an official wristband to gain entry — you needed full leather regalia, or at least clothing that left a lot more to the imagination than was seen elsewhere over the weekend.
The policy suited Gary Wasdin, the new executive director of the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. Wasdin attended Cocktails dressed in leather from head to toe, including a hat similar to one that helped spark his interest in leather 15 years ago while living in New York. “It was just kind of a lonely time in my life and this kind of became my expression of who I was,” he says. “I started saving up and buying a piece of leather here, a little piece there.”
Wasdin thinks of MAL as a “really giant family reunion.” Even if you lose touch, you don’t lose the connection, Wasdin discovered over the weekend, while attending his first MAL in seven years. “It’s been incredible to reconnect with people and pick up where you left off.”
Last weekend also marked the return to MAL for Lenny Broberg, a former titleholder who had not attended for several years. Broberg was at MAL specifically to serve as a Mr. MAL judge, but says it’s not just the contest that makes MAL worth visiting.
“It’s not without its faults, it’s not without its dysfunctions,” Broberg says. “But I have met some of the most generous, caring, and giving people in the leather community as I have anywhere else. And I always love coming back and getting to be a part of something like this.”
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