“MAL can be slightly overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t really know where I’m supposed to go,” says Seth J., a first-time attendee of Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend. On Saturday afternoon, the 34-year-old wrestling and bondage enthusiast, arrived at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill for the annual convention of leather, fetish and BDSM communities. The New Yorker casually wandered through the leather marketplace on the basement level, looking to purchase a few toys and some gear.
“I like the freeness and openness of MAL,” he says. “It seems like people are having good, consensual fun, which is nice.”
Held each year on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday weekend, Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend brings together leather and kink enthusiasts from around the globe, providing a space where people can socialize, make connections, and express themselves without fear of judgment. In the hotel’s main lobby, D.C. area residents and out-of-town visitors clad in leather harnesses, chaps, rubber, or singlets convene cordially while sipping cocktails and beers. Throughout the weekend, the Hyatt’s main ballroom magically transforms itself into spaces for S&M demonstrations, puppy play parks, cocktail parties, and specially-themed dances. Those with their own hotel rooms host private parties where they can gather in smaller groups, away from the larger crowds.
The weekend’s central event, the Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather Contest, brings together contestants competing for the honor to serve as the face of Centaur MC, the leather/Levi club that hosts the weekend, as well as the larger leather community. Competitors undergo a pre-contest interview with a panel of judges, attend several receptions and meet-and-greets throughout the weekend, model clothing looks for various occasions, and answer questions from the judges to demonstrate their poise and ability to think on their feet. The winner earns a chance to compete for the title of International Mr. Leather, a similar event held each May in Chicago.
“I think leather is sexy. I think it’s fun. I think it’s powerful,” says David Spivey, winner of this year’s Mr Mid-Atlantic Leather title, and also the reigning Mr. Pittsburgh Leather Fetish 2020. “It’s a really wonderful way to express yourself outside of work, outside of the everyday sort of humdrum business suit lifestyle that a majority of us have to experience. It’s a way to be all of the above and have a really good time doing it.”
Spivey’s win marks the second year in a row the Mr. MAL winner has hailed from Pittsburgh, following Emërson Anicëto’s victory last year.
“There were three different reasons why I was running for the title,” says Spivey. “Legacy, history, and obligation were really something that compelled me to do it. I knew last year, from seeing some of the inner-workings of the event, meeting a bunch of the Centaurs, talking to the contestants, I really wanted more. I wanted to be involved in the leather community in a way that I hadn’t before.”
Spivey thinks the presence of his mom, Eleanor Spivey, and the positive impression she made supporting her son, may have assisted him in winning. At one point, when asked to respond what his role in a cheerleader-themed horror film would be, he joked that his mother should “prepare herself” for his answer.
“All the contestants have to answer a question on stage,” he says. “Of course, it’s supposed to be sexy and fun. So Mom was sitting in the front row of the audience listening to all these sexy, fun answers. I think it was a bit of a shock to her that it wasn’t homo home improvement all the time. But she rolled with the punches. She was excited to be part of the event and took it all in good fun.”
Eleanor Spivey attended to show her son that he had support from his family, in addition to the people at MAL and his friends from Pittsburgh. She plans to attend the International Mr. Leather contest and cheer him on there, as well.
“I think David was very comfortable,” she said by phone the day after the contest. “He was very proud of me being there. He turned around and told me it made up for all the tennis matches I missed in high school.”
Spivey’s duties for his new title include serving as a representative of Centaur MC and as an ambassador who will help welcome newcomers to join the leather community. He will return to D.C. several times over the next six months to attend various events, including the annual Scarlet’s Bake Sale on Feb. 9.
“I’m excited and honored to hold the title,” he says. “You’re expected to serve as an ambassador. You get to meet and greet people and smile and have a really good time and make sure that they’re having a great time as well. I think this next year is going to be a blast.”
Of course, MAL weekend would not be complete without its niche events. On Friday night, in a pair of adjoining conference rooms, a spandex-sporting throng kicked off their MAL weekend at the annual Superhero Meetup.
In one corner, a leggy, red-bearded Poison Ivy lamented the fact there was no Batman to pose or play with (although there were a couple of Robins). On the far side of the room, Black Panther made out with a Disney character yet to appear in the MCU: Donald Duck in a jockstrap. And nearby, Thiktool, a.k.a. rope bondage artist Tom Roper, wearing a clinging Superman tee, tied up a scantily clad Spider-Man sub.
Presiding over the activity was chief organizer Pup Indigo, assuming the role of “the Val-Zod version of Superman from Earth 2,” complete with a flowing white cape.
“I’ve always liked geek things and superhero things and stuff like that,” he says. “And so this is something that is kind of a natural extension of my personality.”
Pup Indigo acknowledged the sex appeal that comes with the superhero fantasy, pointing to the spandex and skin-tight clothing donned by some of the superhero fetishists. “However you identify, whatever gender you identify with, everyone generally looks good in what they’re doing. Especially, have you not read comic books? Almost everyone looks really good at what they’re wearing.”
On Saturday morning, at the 12th annual Puppy Park, several dozen “puppies” gathered in the hotel’s basement conference rooms, where gym mats were laid out to create a play space. Within minutes, the mats were full of wriggling, prancing pups clad in dog-shaped masks, harnesses, collars, and various colored singlets, knocking around balls, playing with squeaky toys, and growling and piling on top of each other.
Alongside the mats stood an inflatable pit filled with brightly-colored rubber balls where the pups could frolic. At one point, stuffed dogs, cats, rabbits, and unicorns were tossed into the mix, prompting the puppies to howl with delight.
Leonard Carlton Bennett, of Martinsburg, W.V., is both a pup and a master. He says this year’s MAL was the first time he’d been in a ball pit. Accompanied by his trusty sidekick, Pupp Wolfgang, the two enjoy letting loose and entering a space without cares.
“I enjoy playing, allowing myself to not be so serious half the time,” Bennett says. “It allows both of us to put our normal lives on ‘paws,’ and get back to the primal nature of things, like ‘Eat, sleep, play.’ It’s nice to get a moment to put on the hood, put on the paws, and just relax.”
Milesade Crank-Brock, a female trans pup attending her second year of MAL, who goes by the moniker Pup Cinnamon, likes the idea of getting into a headspace where things aren’t as focused on her gender identity and where she is more on an equal footing with other pups.
Crank-Brock appreciates that MAL provides a quiet space off to the sides for pups who don’t necessarily want to be at the center of a puppy pile or where pups can rest when they get tired.
“In the mosh, there can be some aggression,” she says. “I’m more of a very passive, peaceful kind of pup. I’m not the kind that’s going to wrestle you real rough or anything, because I also have a disability. But outside of that, I don’t really get pushed around. Sometimes, I’ll show up at a pup scene and accidentally fall into little space, so I’ll start hanging on to my daddy. Some people definitely will get like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ but it’s like, ‘Hey. We’re all here to have fun, enjoy ourselves. Let me do my thing.'”
Crank-Brock says puppy moshes are getting better about including female-identified pups, but some pups still have bad attitudes and only want to play with male pups, especially sexually.
“I enjoy the fact that MAL has this event, and that it’s open, because I know that there are other events in other parts of the country that are very much male-only spaces,” Crank-Brock says. “They won’t allow either women or won’t allow trans men, that sort of thing. Here, there’s a space where everybody can play and socialize.”
An hour after the ball pit was deflated and the puppies scattered, the ballroom became a play space for kink enthusiasts, who got to watch members of SigMa, a D.C.-based, volunteer-run, BDSM/kink/fetish nonprofit co-op, demonstrate how to engage in BDSM play. Different stations were set up for mummification, e-stim play, tactile play, ropes and suspension, flogging, and spanking, as curious passersby looked on.
David Mullis, SigMa’s webmaster, who is in charge of communications and marketing for the club, was involved in the spanking demonstration, something he had always been interested in but was able to learn the nuances of through SigMa’s regularly scheduled play parties.
“For this event, I’ve been focused on giving [the crowd] a taste of the breadth of it all,” he says. “I am hoping they get to see the kind of connection and relationship that gets formed when you are spanking someone and being spanked, and understand that’s it’s not just hitting away.”
SigMa President Mark Hegeman, who was demonstrating various aspects of “tactile play” on volunteers, says that sometimes people have to be coaxed out of simply being voyeurs and into participating, as they may want to take part, but are shy at expressing their desires when it comes to BDSM play.
“I’ve seen steady [levels of] interest,” he says. “Though I will say that the pup community is growing, and virtually every pup is into BDSM. So in those terms, I think the BDSM is growing.”
Regarding his preference for tactile play, Hegeman acknowledges it is’t as visually stimulating as other forms of kink, but people generally enjoy it once they jump in.
“There’s not as much happening, as, say, suspension. It’s not as actively visual. You’re doing things, lots of times you’re just rubbing on the person’s body. Other people may not see their reaction. For some people it’s very hard to tell what their reaction is, but others will literally arch their back off the table, or their mouth will open up and they’ll give a silent sigh. Others just get hard. So you kind of watch and if they are wiggling and seem like they’re enjoying something, you try to do more of that.”
Todd White, president of Centaur MC, says that the hotel took steps regarding crowd control that made the entire weekend feel more organized and gave attendees a fair deal of space to walk around without stepping on toes or crashing into people, as in past years.
“It made it more manageable to navigate and get through to where you wanted to go,” says White. “The crowd seemed more controlled and didn’t seem quite as packed, which has been a problem for us in the past.”
Noting that the Centaurs were celebrating their 50th anniversary as a club, White believes the special anniversary added an extra sense of excitement throughout the weekend. Many people expressed a desire to come back next year — something that was bolstered by the fact that rooms for next year sold out within 40 minutes after the Hyatt allowed people to begin booking reservations online.
White says the popularity of the event may also indicate that the Centaurs may have to look at how to find additional space for would-be attendees, just as they had to when the event moved from the Washington Plaza Hotel to the Hyatt in 2011.
“We can’t be any prouder,” he says. “I don’t know any other leather event that can sell out in 40 minutes. It says to me that the community loves us as much as we love them. Yes, it’s a huge event, but the base of it all is it’s like a family reunion. We don’t do classes or workshops and put that layer of protocol in, because we want it to be your event. It’s what you make of it.”
André Hereford contributed to this story.
For more information on next year’s MAL, visit www.leatherweekend.com.
For more information on the Centaur MC, visit www.centaurmc.org.
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