"I remember the first day I walked into the New York Eagle. " Mel Jacobs shifts in his chair and cocks his head. "I had never been into a leather bar before and I was absolutely petrified. I had no idea what I was going to find. "
What Mel Jacobs found -- ultimately -- was himself.
Twentysome-odd years later, Jacobs is about to start his second year-long term as president of the Centaur Motorcycle Club, the organization that, for nearly two decades, has sponsored Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend (MAL). What once was a small gathering of friends at an exclusive cocktail party has exploded into an annual event that attracts leathermen and leatherwomen -- and a host of supporters -- from around the nation. The weekend is an array of events large and small, including the renowned Leather Cocktails party at Nation on Saturday night. With its enormous buffet (complete with elaborate ice sculptures and a veritable mountain of shrimp), the registrants-only Leather Cocktails is reason enough to pony up the weekend fee. But for $20, anyone can partake in the reliably raucous contest on Sunday at Nation that will decide Mr. MAL 2002.
It's the Saturday morning before Leather Weekend and Jacobs, casually dressed in a forest green, hooded sweatshirt and faded jeans, is busily overseeing the stuffing of more than 1,500 individual bags for the weekend's registrants. An assembly-line of volunteers from various organization -- Centaurs, Potomac MC, SIGMA -- noisily talk amongst themselves as they load each bag with information on the various clubs, condoms, coupons, even a handy magnetized notepad from the Leather Rack detailing the time-honored hankie code.
"I've always found the gay community to be difficult for some people to really get involved in and be happy with, " says Jacobs, as he fields questions from a reporter on Leather Weekend basics. "When I first came out and joined the gay community, it was a traumatic experience for me. I had been married for twelve years, so I found it very difficult to feel comfortable in the community in general. But from the day I first got involved in the leather community, the feeling was very different. I found that people were a lot more accepting, a lot more down to earth, and, in general, a lot more welcoming.
"Maybe it's that we understand life better or we know what we're looking for, " he continues. "But I think we have our heads on a lot straighter than most people think we do -- both as individuals and as a community. "
MW: You've been with the Centaurs since 1990, which makes this your twelfth MAL. How has the event changed in the past ten years?
MEL JACOBS: The biggest changes occurred before I ever got involved in it. But in the past ten years, we've streamlined things. We've taken on additional things that we didn't do in the early nineties -- things like the vendor marketplace and providing bus transportation for all of our guests. At the same time we've given up certain things. In the early days we used to do all of our own shopping, all of our own cooking, all of our own serving. It was a lot to do. As we grew and the number of guests increased, we had to rethink what we were going to do and what we needed to contract out.
MW: What would you say is the most popular aspect of the weekend?
MEL: To the guests, probably the contest. My personal favorite, of course, is leather cocktails because you get to see friends that you haven't seen in a long time, and you get to socialize. I find it a very classy, very fun event.
MW: Ritual and tradition is an integral part to the leather cocktails celebration, what with the Parade of Colors and all.
MEL: Well, there's a good deal of camaraderie, which is really what the weekend is all about. Although it's interesting because a lot of our guests for leather weekend are not necessarily club people. But we feel there's a lot of camaraderie in the leather population in general. It's also nice because many of our alumni come and bring with them old friends. This year is particularly important to us because the theme is Leather Reunion, and we hope that we get a lot of our old friends coming back. It gives us a chance to honor people. We're very history-minded, as you know.
I think what's also important, though, is that a community be current -- and the leather community obviously over the last thirty years has changed a lot. You have to keep having a reason for people to join. While history and tradition are terribly important, you can't be so bound up in history that you forget to make the various leather clubs and organizations viable for people today. And people today are not necessarily interested in the same things they were even ten years ago. It's not surprising that in various parts of the country, many leather clubs have just disappeared. So it's important for the leather clubs to keep themselves current and viable.
MW: How is that accomplished?
MEL: In the activities you offer, the things that you do. I mean, after all, what is a club? It's a group of people who have banded together to enjoy each other and do things together. So you've got to give them what they want, whether it be through intimate social events where people can get together -- be they pot lucks, card parties, watching movies, whatever -- or bigger events, like Leather Weekend.
MW: There are differences in the social structures of each clubs. You have to pledge the Centaur Motorcycle Club, to my understanding.
MEL: Actually, we did away with pledging years ago and simply moved to a system where if people did things with the organization, the organization liked them and the people indicated that they wanted to be a part of the group, we invited them to join. But it is an invitation. They are inducted into the club, so in that sense it's like a fraternal organization.
MW: It used to be a requirement that you own a motorcycle to be a Centaur.
MEL: Not anymore, that's changed.
MW: There are other clubs, however -- Spartans, for instance -- who are are hardliners about members having to own motorcycles and actively participate in runs.
MEL: Historically, motorcycle clubs started as motorcycle clubs and I can't pretend to know what all of the individual club's bylaws were. But when the Centaurs started, motorcycles were a requisite. We kind of moved away from that in the early ‘80s and there was a schism in the club because of it. There were people who wanted to keep it all motorcycle, there were people who wanted to allow non-motorcycle people to come in. Our current bylaws simply address it as motorcycle riders, enthusiasts, and people who are interested in motorcycling.
MW: That's pretty broad.
MEL: But the reality of the situation is that most members of our club do enjoy some form of motorcycling. But as clubs evolved, many moved away from the concept of motorcycle and simply called themselves Leather-Levi, or "LL. " There's now a broader mix of the leather community involved in backpatch organizations, and each club inherently has different personalities.
MW: What would the personality of the Centaurs be?
MEL: That's like asking me to define my personality and I don't know how to do that, I really don't. I guess I can say that I truly believe that our club is very much like a family. We love each other like a family, we fight like a family, we get into disagreements like a family, but we come together to help each other and to put on events. You could argue that there are times when you don't always talk to or hear from certain members -- well, hell, my mother used to tell me that all the time, "You never call me. " It's like a family in all those respects. But when push comes to shove, we're there for each other.
One thing about the leather community, nationally, is that it's a very close knit community. We know everybody, we all know each other. One thing I learned a long time ago is that you don't screw the leather community. You don't do anything that's inappropriate because it is a brotherhood and we care about each other. And if you screw up, they don't forget. They're your friends, their homes are open to you, anywhere you go you have a place to stay. In return, you're honest, you're fair, you're a friend, and you don't do anything that you shouldn't do. It's a good creed to live by.