- The Magazine
Every January, huge crowds cover the lobby and lower levels of the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, attracted en masse to Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend, an annual event hosted by local motorcycle club Centaur MC. In addition to a Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather contest, MAL features fetish demonstrations, dances, cocktail parties and a leather mart where people can purchase gear. Moreover, the full hotel is booked for the event, making it an exclusive leather and fetish preserve.
There’s often just enough space to tiptoe through the crowd or navigate through the maze of booths at the mart. Everybody from playful leathermen, dressed in full regalia, to couples wearing wrestling singlets and armbands crowd together, sipping on cocktails, chatting and introducing themselves to each other, with maybe a flirtatious double entendre or playful nipple tweak here and there.
Because of the hotel’s internal layout and the sheer size of the crowds, the scene at MAL weekend can be overwhelming and intimidating for the MAL novice. Even veterans can be taken aback by the sheer scale of it. But it’s certainly friendlier than it may initially seem. Nigel Williams, Mr. DC Eagle 2013, says newcomers shouldn’t be scared. Use your first MAL as an educational experience by attending the various parties, auctions or receptions, or by engaging people huddled in small groups throughout the hotel’s main lobby.
“I’d say, ‘It’s great that you’re going. Be respectful. Go with an open mind. Don’t go in judging,'” Williams advises. “Visit the vendor mart. Educate yourself about the various toys, gear, kinks. Meet people and talk with them. If you have a particular fetish, or you’re just starting out in the scene, the vendors are there to explain and answer questions. The most important thing to remember is that everyone was new once, and, hopefully, everybody will be able to empathize.”
Jackie Thompson, a member of the Highwaymen TNT, a local biker club, says there is often a stereotype of those in the leather or fetish community as being harsh, mean and unfriendly, a perception she says could not be further from the truth.
“The community is quite friendly and welcoming,” Thompson says. “That’s a good thing. If you’re new, you’re not the only one. Every person has been where you are before. We’re still here, standing with open arms.”
That’s not to say there aren’t rules, however. Particularly in relationships with a power structure, such as master-slave, sir-boy or puppy-handler relationships, there is often an unspoken code of behavior or etiquette by which one is expected to abide. In those cases, local MAL veterans say, it’s best to ask whether to engage the submissive partner before committing a faux pas, such as touching a pup’s collar.
“Say, ‘excuse me’ when you approach people and introduce yourself,” says Thompson. “If someone’s in the middle of a scene, or is a puppy, for example, don’t interrupt or touch them without asking their dom. Always ask permission and be respectful. ‘Hi’ is always a good start.”
“You’re going to meet a collection of people who may take those rules very seriously,” Williams says. “You’re also going to see a lot of people who are just there to have a good time. Of course, walking the hallways can be an adventure,” he adds, referring to the cruisy reputation MAL has developed during the nighttime hours in the hotel.
There are markers for many, if not most, of the particular kinks and fetishes and one’s role in them — chiefly based on the position and color of an armband or handkerchief. (Right signifies bottom or submissive, left a top or dominant partner, with a rainbow of colors that can signify everything from vanilla — white for masturbation, a teddy bear signifying cuddling — to hardcore, with orange signaling “anything goes.”) The best way to find out what somebody is into is to engage them in conversation, as many — at MAL, at least — are often proud to share that information, as well as any additional scenes they may be into but are not visibly “flagging.”
“I think the biggest misconception about MAL is that everyone thinks it’s all about whips, chains and bondage,” Williams says. “If you see someone in leather, you may think they’re automatically into whipping or tying up someone. But there’s a whole rich history of leather. The key components behind leather are brotherhood, shared interests, and a sense of belonging. I personally find it very empowering, because you’re able to be yourself. Leather is not one-size-fits-all. But that’s the joy of communication: you get to meet all types of people.”
Longtime MAL attendee David Merrill, who co-produces the fetishwear party CODE and is a Gold Key Master at SigMa, the local BDSM club, says there’s often overlap between various scenes within the kink or fetish community. The other thing to remember, he says, is that no one’s fetish is completely the same.
“You’ve got various ways of approaching the entire lifestyle,” Merrill says. “You’ve got the various relationships we have, you’ve got the fetish wear, and you’ve got the kinds of play that we do. I think those are the basic ways we approach the scene. And you have those people who may or may not be into any particular kind of play, whether it’s whipping or flogging or bondage or needles or anything else. They’re completely independent of each other. You can have guys that are into bondage and jock gear and nothing else. You can have guys who are into leather and needles and nothing else. You can have guys who are not into leather or gear but are into spanking. It’s kind of a Chinese menu — take what you want, leave what you don’t.”
But the one thing that all experts and veterans of MAL seem to agree on is the importance of communication to understanding people’s boundaries — and keeping all interactions fun, but also safe and consensual.
“I think a lot of people have instinctive sexual desires,” Merrill says of people’s willingness to seek out various scenes within the leather or kink community. “Sexual desire comes from the animal brain. Their higher-level brain may not be engaged at all. And that’s a problem. You have to have your entire brain engaged. You have to have the discussion before you start. You have to keep communicating while you’re playing. You can’t just let things go where they go, because you might … regret it.
“If you want to play with somebody, if you continue telling them how you’re feeling during the play and what you want, you’re probably going to have a good experience,” Merrill continues. “If you don’t, it’s a crap shoot. If you’re really lucky, you might find a guy who will give you everything you want. Otherwise, it’s more likely that you’re going to have a terrible time.”
Thompson agrees with that assessment, saying open and honest conversation is essential to making one’s first time enjoyable. Communication also helps to establish trust, not only for the submissive partner, but also the dominant one.
“It all starts with communication,” Thompson, who describes herself as an “equal opportunity top,” says. “Talking to people, asking them, ‘Are you interested?’ and ‘Are you in the right frame of mind?’ If you don’t tell me what you want, how can I trust you to tell me that that’s too far, or beyond your limit? The conversation sets the tone for any scene.”
It’s also important to keep in mind a distinction between fantasy and reality — or the difference between what you might see in porn or in real-life demonstrations at MAL, and what you can achieve on your own.
“It’s really important to remember that what you see as being advertised or being promoted,” says Mindy Chateauvert, a member of Centaur MC, “is not necessarily something that you want to do without a lot of training or a lot of experience, or without somebody who is experienced. The analogy is close to operating dangerous equipment without having any experience or anybody to tell you how to use it.”
Yet that’s all part of what makes MAL so important and critical as a meeting point and breeding ground for exploring and engaging in various kinks and fetishes. “I know so many people whose first experience with anything involving leather/kink/BDSM was at MAL,” a Facebook user named Dominion Onyx, a member of Onyx, the leather and BDSM group for people of color in D.C., recently posted to MAL’s page. The comment came in response to a question about whether “lasting connections” are made at the event. “It is definitely a chance to do so much more than meet your next play buddy,” Onyx wrote. “For many of us, it was a life-changing experience.”
As an introduction to MAL, we asked local experts and veteran attendees to expound on fetish scenes common at the event — how they work and why they’re so popular among the leather, BDSM and kink communities.
Person of interest: Mindy Chateauvert
How did you get started? “San Francisco in 1976. At that time there was a huge community, [but] because I was not part of it, the stuff that I ended up doing and getting involved in turned out to be very abusive — psychologically and physically. I didn’t participate originally in a community with people who understood what safe, sane and consensual meant. So it really wasn’t until I found some of the groups in D.C. that I felt like I could once again participate, eventually finding out that there were ways of participating that were not a danger to your life.”
What attracts you to it? “The part that’s attractive to so many people is the idea of power exchange — putting your trust in somebody else. We don’t like to talk about how important power is in relationships, and I think that one of the things that for me is attractive is the honesty around the power, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist.”
How does it work? “One of the things that becomes so important is negotiation. When we’re talking with a potential play partner, you do talk specifically about what it is you like and what you don’t like, and what you’re willing to try and what you’re not willing to try, and what stuff turns you on and what stuff doesn’t turn you on. When I negotiate with somebody, we spend the first two or three days talking about what we’re interested in, before anything happens. So this is not something that’s just sort of like, ‘Oh, I meet you at a bar and then we go home and do something.’ It’s a long process and preparation.”
What clubs are available for those interested in exploring the scene? “There are a lot of different groups. One of the most important ones here in DC is M.A.S.T. [Masters and Slaves Together]. There is both a pansexual and a gay M.A.S.T. They’ve been around for a very long time.”
Biggest misconception? “There’s so little talk these days about how to talk about sex, that people can’t talk about it, so they find themselves — in my observation and experience — having a very difficult time even knowing what they actually are interested in. In the BDSM and leather communities, it’s all about figuring out what it is you want and exploring that in a safe environment. The BDSM community insists on negotiating and understanding what each partner is interested in — their limits, their ideas, and most importantly this idea of power exchange. It’s an old saw, but something to remember: The bottom, if you will, always has the right to say ‘no.’ And when that ‘no’ happens, it’s supposed to stop. That’s the whole point.”
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