“When I think of my place in the leather community, I always think of the movie Ice Age, where Manny the mammoth is looking for his fellow mammoths,” says Duke, the newly crowned Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather 2022. “I always say the leather community is my mammoth.”
The 38-year-old Alexandria resident, who only goes by Duke, was born and raised in Overland Park, Kansas. He has been searching for a sense of belonging since childhood.
“I was not your ‘typical boy’ as a kid,” he says. “There was always something a little different about me. My mother is an exceptionally compassionate, kind human being, and she never wanted me to stay in the closet. When I was 12 years old, I told her I thought I was gay. It was just after Ellen [DeGeneres] had come out and I could finally put a name to the feeling. She said she would support me, but that I had to know the other kids might not like it, and I had to deal with that sort of warning very early on.”
Kansas was “a very difficult place to grow up,” he recalls.
“I felt like people were kind, and that they tried to love me, but I also felt like they had a very difficult time understanding. And it was very clear to me, early on, that I could not sustain living there forever.”
At 18, Duke became involved in an LGBTQ youth group in Kansas City. He met new people, formed friendships, and joined local sports teams, adopting what he now calls a “jock-cowboy” persona — a reference to the trademark cowboy hat he wears to every social gathering and leather event. He also carries around his very first cock ring as a reminder of where he’s from.
“I was looking at a magazine at a friend’s house and saw a picture of a guy wearing a cock ring,” he says. “I wanted one, so I went into an old barn and I found a rusted-out horse bit. I broke the ring off of it, and then got my first cock ring. I carried it around in my pocket the entire [MAL] competition, to remind me of where I came from and to remind me that I always had that sort of instinct for broadening my horizons, even when I didn’t have the resources to do so.”
Duke’s first introduction to the leather community came in his late 20s, when he attended his first Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend, the annual leather event hosted by Centaur Motorcycle Club.
“I moved to D.C. to attend graduate school in 2011 and didn’t know anybody,” he says. “I was fresh off the bus from Kansas. Friends asked me to come with them to Mid-Atlantic Leather. I told them, ‘That sounds too extreme for me.’
“I remember making the comment, ‘I’ll find somebody else to hang out with that weekend and I’ll catch up with you guys next weekend.’ There was a kind of silence and my friend said, ‘You don’t get this. There is nobody else to hang out with that weekend. They’ll all be at MAL.’
“So I went, and it was an exposure to a new world. I had known that the sort of restrictive life that I had grown up with in Kansas wasn’t necessarily right for me, but MAL gave me exposure to an alternative that just felt right. So being able to run for a title this year, at the same event, 10 years to the date I first learned of the leather community, was just a humbling and exciting experience.”
Prior to competing for the title of the 2022 Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather, Duke won the Mr. Mayhem Leather title — his first ever — during Bears, Bikers, & Mayhem, a national event held in Gettysburg every May. It was postponed until August last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mayhem is a title that is very service-oriented,” he says. “Every title is different. Some titles are more service-oriented than others. For every title, you have the liberty in your application to say ‘This is a cause I care about,’ or ‘I would use resources to work for this.’ As Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather, you are principally an ambassador for the Centaurs. So when I ran for Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather, I thought about my relationship to the Centaurs and to the event that they host and why that matters to me, and I focused on that in my application.”
While competing at Mr. MAL, Duke bonded with his fellow competitors.
“I met three fun, sexy, hilarious strangers on Friday night and I call them brothers now,” he says. “It’s such a bonding experience when you’re in that crucible of competition and all you really have to rely on is each other. We spent all of two days together, but because of the intensity and amount of time we spent together for those two days, it felt like we had spent weeks together. That’s why we were able to build that sort of camaraderie.
“I think the time that stands out most to me is when we were in interviews, the four of us were sitting in a room, and each one of us went into the interview separately. And when somebody would come back, there would be a few minutes where we’d all be together, because the judges take their time to take notes in between interviews. We took that opportunity to talk and get to know each other. And we talked about things as mundane as our barbers and beard-trimming and stuff like that. It was just four people being people.”
Duke says “the most amazing thing was that it became very, very clear from the get-go that any one of us would have made a great Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather. If that weekend had turned out differently and any of my other brothers had been picked, the Centaurs would have been just as lucky.”
As Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather 2022, Duke is obligated to attend specific events like Capital Pride, but otherwise enjoys flexibility in which events he’ll attend over the course of the next year, and what organizations he’ll help to raise money for. He’ll also be eligible to compete for the title of International Mr. Leather in Chicago this spring.
“I haven’t started getting the butterflies for IML yet,” he says. “Having been in this community for 10 years, I have such reverence for the title that I know, at some point in time, it’s going to become very real to me. To be honest, I haven’t even allowed myself to think about what if I won IML. That seems like such a lofty dream.”
As an ambassador for Centaur MC and for Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend, Duke wants to share his personal story, which serves as an example of how he found his identity and a sense of belonging within the leather community
“I think the most important thing to know about the leather community is that it was forged by people who were told by society not to be who they are, taking the chance to be who they are,” Duke says. “The leather community was born of visibility. The leather community is a product of the necessity to have a voice and to be seen and to be heard by a society that tells you you’re not worth being seen or heard. And so even if you don’t agree with the leather community on some sort of very base level, it is important to understand that it is about individuals’ rights to be themselves. And to do so unashamedly.”
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