Finding Acceptance In The Leather Community
The leather community has long been dominated by white, cisgender, masculine faces. But that's changing, and at a recent convention, I felt like family in a way I never have before.
Leather folk are kissers. On the mouth. It’s a trend I’ve noticed since I started closely following and writing about the leather community about a year ago, but one that became undeniable on the first night of Mid Atlantic Leather (MAL) Weekend, one of the biggest leather conventions in the country, earlier this month.
I watched kiss after kiss after elaborate kiss in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Friday night. Whether reuniting after years spent apart or just meeting that night, guys of all shapes, sizes, and colors were kissing (and groping, and then some) with abandon. The hotel was exclusively reserved for the convention, so there was no risk of prudes wandering in and getting offended, and given how little most of the 3,000 attendees were wearing, that was probably for the best.
I was wearing a harness that clipped onto my belt loops, serving double duty as suspenders, over a shirt (I’m not the shirtless type, though that is overwhelmingly the norm at these kinds of events) and a pair of black pants. Instead of kissing, I resolutely stuck a hand out whenever I was introduced to someone new. A few offered hugs, and the rest smiled and then shook. I was not a leatherman, though I find myself endlessly fascinated by them—the harness was my drag to blend in. Hell, I don’t even kiss my mother.
Though you might not think it from all that kissing, for much of its history, the leather community was rooted in old-line notions of masculinity—and, invariably, became a celebration of a very white notion of what masculinity entails. As the esteemed leatherman and leather historian Guy Baldwin wrote in his 1998 essay "The Old Guard: The History of Leather Traditions," the leather community first got its start in the wake of World War II, as queer men returned from war and congregated in port cities like New York and San Francisco. Springing from and closely associated with motorcycle clubs, men who relished in military displays of “masculinity,” order, and control began to form leather bars and clubs in the 50s, often serving as a kind of family for others like themselves. In the decades that followed, artists like Tom of Finland rose to prominence, leather clubs expanded, and pageants like MAL formed, becoming places where leathermen could gather as a community. Some began to compete for titles like Mr. Mid Atlantic Leather, judged on criteria like body confidence, public speaking ability, and more.
Though over the past few years, parts of the leather community have been changing—”leather,” depending on who you ask, is less synonymous with the intricate, family-like communities from which the subculture grew, and today is thought of more as a generic “fetish” (or even a fashion statement). For some, the focus on masculinity has faltered; what was once an overwhelmingly white scene has become increasingly diverse. And all of that was evident at MAL.
Walking through the lobby of the Hyatt on MAL’s first night, I was impressed by the way packing thousands of hardcore fetishists into one contained space could blow anyone’s sense of what’s “normal” out of the water. “The lobby basically turns into the largest gay bar in DC,” Patrick Grady, a member of the Centaur Motorcycle Club (which also organizes the event), told me prior to attending.
More specifically, it seemed like the largest fetish bar in DC, with hundreds of people casually chatting, groping, and walking around in pup masks, tied up in rope harnesses and zipped into tight latex suits. At one point, I waited near two older guys in rubber and latex jockstraps by an elevator bank. “Is he wearing a diaper?” one asked as a diaper fetishist passed us; his friend replied with a casual “yeah,” the first guy shrugged, and their conversation carried on.
It was that “you do you” vibe that I came to admire greatly as the weekend went on, one I sometimes feel is missing from certain queer spaces. It was the opposite of scenes frequently seen at some gay bars: packs of guys whispering disparagingly about shirtless patrons with less than a six pack, or girls giggling as they walk through cruise bars like the Eagle or the Cock in New York City. The relative acceptance and lack of attitude I found at MAL ran counter to the exclusionary nature of many gay spaces. At MAL, it felt like no one was gawking. It felt like I was welcome to exist.
But there is a difference between feeling welcome to exist and feeling accepted.
Though I had been following the leather community for over a year, I’ve rarely felt like it was a place for me. That’s for several reasons—I don’t really have a thing for leather, for one, or feel particularly attached to any fetish. Though I’ve borrowed pieces to blend in, and thought I’ve been able to make a harness look good, there’s nothing particularly compelling in it for me. But it’s also about seeing people like me—or the lack thereof—in the community.
Whether it’s the work of Tom of Finland or portraits of past titleholders, the image of the leather community has long been awash with white, cisgender, traditionally masculine faces. But that’s been changing—some feminine leathermen have been rising through the competition ranks, intent on shifting the idea of what a “leatherman” can be; in the lobby at MAL I saw guys in jockstraps and platform stilettos and corsets—but before attending MAL, I had never seen men of color as part of the community en masse.
“I never felt the community was for people like me—you know, people of color,” Dax Volpe, Mr. Leatherman of Color 2018, told me. “So I kind of stayed away from it for a while until I saw some of my friends joining ONYX. ONYX was really integral in me getting out there in the leather community.”
ONYX is one of the country's largest leather clubs specifically for men of color. With chapters across the country, the organization hopes to “address issues specific to people of color” in the larger leather community. And one of those issues, though they are wide-ranging and varied, is simply representation.
“I found my brotherhood in [ONYX], and what I found can’t be replaced,” said Gray Onyx, Mr. DC Eagle 2017 and vice president of ONYX Mid-Atlantic. “It took me three years to find them; I was looking at the different organizations coming through and I was trying different ones. They would be nice some days and then they would be nasty some days but ONYX was the leather club that was consistent and friendly and made me feel at home.” And at MAL, that home was on the fifth floor of the Hyatt, where they hosted a schedule of cocktails, meet-ups and parties in a suite of rooms for members and their friends. I quickly became one of those friends.
As I attended various MAL events throughout the weekend, I found myself repeatedly in the orbit of Martel Brown Jr., a person of color and the holder of Mr. Mid Atlantic Leather 2017. This was arguably his weekend. And it was Brown who pushed me to attend the closing night party, REVIVAL. He offered me one of his own harnesses, suggested in his patient and persistent way that I go shirtless, and our crew departed for the party. There on the dance floor, with guys on stage twirling fabric (known as flagging) under pools of purple and lime green lights, a feeling washed over me—it felt like home, like family.
It wasn’t immediately obvious why. I had watched attendees and friends vogue on the floor, a dance style familiar to me and the product of queer people of color. That familiarity was certainly a part of it why I felt welcome. But that commonality seemed to go both ways. Sir Eli, an older leatherman wearing a gauzy pink fabric in the shape of a hooded overcoat, egged me on during a few songs, trying to get me to vogue with the rest of the group. He seemed to see something in me below the surface, and hoped to gently prod it out.
“My motto is to show up and show out,” he told me later. “That’s my legacy, because we [as people of color] have to not only show up to these events, but we have to leave an impression, because we deserve to be here.” And I felt like I deserved it.
Two hours after the party ended, I walked to Union Station, ready to take my bus back home to New York. Brown threw on a coat and walked me over. We chatted on the way, and I fumbled for words to explain how the weekend had made me feel seen and accepted—how even though I wasn’t “into leather,” I had considered that feigning interest to simply be part of this community would be worth it.
“This isn’t about leather,” he said. “This is about family. Leather is just the drag.”
As we walked up to the queue for my bus home, I turned to him to say our goodbyes and thank him for taking me under his wing that weekend, unasked. We hugged before parting, and gave each other the most natural and fluid goodbye kiss on the lips.