Gay leather fetishists gather to celebrate skins and substance

Saturday night in Las Vegas was the 90th annual Miss America. The winner was a sweet 17-year-old blonde from Nebraska.

Sunday afternoon at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill was the 26th annual Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather contest. It is the highlight of the Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend, the largest East Coast gathering of gay leather fetishists. The winner travels to the International Mr. Leather competition in Chicago, where he mingles with thousands of men who have managed to replicate every authority-based uniform - policemen, soldiers, umpires - in leather.

"I meet the nicest people through leather," says contestant Frank King, who elects to pair a leather vest with a red lumberjack shirt for the casual portion of the competition. "Doctors, lawyers. Just everyday people."

King, who owns a resort in Rehoboth Beach, Del., is new to the leather scene. His grown daughter wanted to come see her dad in the competition; he convinced her that he wanted to go it alone his first year.

"People say this lifestyle is about whips and chains," says contestant Tim White, the reigning Mr. Connecticut Leather, who, in what is considered a celebrity romance in this community, is dating the current Mr. New Jersey Leather. "But it's about heart. There is so much nurturing in this community."

By the time you factor in all the costs, a good pair of dress leathers - the button-down shirt, the high-gloss pants, the chaps (if you are going in a chaps direction) - can run upwards of $900. This is not taking into account the maintenance costs, such as the bottles of Lexol Leather Conditioner, required to keep dress leathers supple. Seventy-five dollars is not unheard of for a classy leather jockstrap, and then there is the preparation that goes into wearing a leather jockstrap in public.

"I got a salad at dinner last night," says White, who sports a leather police cap and a handlebar goatee. "And everyone said, 'Oh, Tim has to get ready for his pageant.' "

The competition, held on a faux-marbled stage in a basement ballroom, begins with the American and Canadian national anthems and the lighting of candles in remembrance for leather men who have died. An interpreter in a leather vest translates everything into sign language for the benefit of International Mr. and Ms. Deaf Leather, both of whom are in attendance. The contest then proceeds to the physically revealing portion of the afternoon, in which the seven contestants are introduced with short paragraphs describing their likes and dislikes and why they want to be Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather.

Doug Pamplin, a customer service representative from Pittsburgh who goes by "D," flexes his glutes as the emcee describes his love of toy tractors (Tonkas!); he later speaks of his desire to eliminate world hunger by starting a food bank. "But instead of perishables," he would offer gift cards, which he feels are less "dehumanizing."

Later, in the dress leathers and personal interview portion of the contest, a contestant who goes only by his stage name, First Sergeant, describes his big-tent goal of "involving Latinos in the leather community," then thoughtfully discusses whether he would consider an enhanced TSA pat-down to be akin to getting to first base. (Only if he was taken to a private room.) The jokes are rife with innuendo, and sometimes out-uendo: The allusions and equipment would make your average sex-ed teacher blush.

Traditionally, the undergarment portion of the competition is the most popular, but contest chairman Steve Ranger does not want people to get the wrong idea. "It's not about: Do you have washboard abs?" says Ranger, who hangs a fetching cat-o'-nine-tails whip from his fitted leather pants. "It's about: Do you feel comfortable in your own skin? Most of the winners end up doing a lot of fundraising. It's people who want to give back to the community. The winner is rarely the most attractive."

Everyone says how friendly the leather men are. Just the best guys. Not like the aggressive club scene, that meat market where everyone is judged on how little they have of something: flab, hair, pudge, wrinkles. The leather men are into substance, into respecting their subculture's history and the prominent leather families whose ties are stronger than blood. Also, world peace.

The seven contestants are evaluated by a panel of seven judges, who have conducted offstage interviews that count for a lot of the final score. These experts are led by the reigning Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather, Matt Bamford, a small, slender man known as "Travelsize" or "Bam Bam," who wears a glitzy belt and studded leather sash announcing his title.

"As Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather, you have the capability to reach a large audience," says Bamford, who spent his term advocating for the reduction of HIV and who also enjoys kayaking, camping and long car trips, when he's not working for Pottery Barn. "So I am really looking for [a replacement] who can represent the community well."

Other judges include the current International Mr. Leather, a balding, spectacled man with a soft voice who uses a wheelchair because he has cerebral palsy ("I'm the first disabled person to be International Mr. Leather," Tyler McCormick says proudly), and Mollena Williams, the current International Ms. Leather and the only woman on the panel.

"The community is really changing," Williams says, discreetly adjusting her leather bustier. In the past, the male and female leather communities were very segregated. "But if you just say, 'This is what leather means, period,' then you're going to die off. You have this new generation who wants everything to be fluid."

"I just got back from Stockholm," she begins, when she is interrupted by a friend wearing a dog collar who begins enthusiastically gyrating against her leg. "Pardon me," Williams says to the man. "I am trying to conduct a media interview."

"I'm sorry," he says, sincerely.

This is a pivotal time for the leather community, which has realized that in order to stay relevant, they must embrace change, they must sacrifice exclusivity for inclusion - and not just when it comes to gender. "It's significant that, particularly among the younger guys, the typical leather motorcycle guy is not what they want," says Leather Weekend spokesman Larry Barat. "They're more into rubber gear, maybe, or you'll see a lot of sports."

Outside of the contest's ballroom, the exhibition hall, a labyrinth of for-sale clothing and accessories, is comprised of only about half of what connoisseurs would call traditional leather items; the rest is an assortment of rubber gear, latex gear and a wide array of football and wrestling uniforms.

"This is a good deal for a flogger," one man asks his friend in the exhibition hall, as they examine a rack of switches. "Right? For a flogger, a good deal?"

Back at the contest, the contestants are brought onstage for the announcement of the winner. The 2011 Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather honoree is Pamplin, the Pittsburgh customer service rep. He had won over the crowd when he was asked to develop a fantasy scenario involving office supplies and came up with very creative uses for Post-it notes.

The passing of the title commences, with Bamford emotionally thanking all of the people who supported him throughout his reign, especially Spanky, a mohawked man with several doorknob-size earrings who comes to the stage for a heartfelt embrace. Bamford passes the studded Mr. Mid-Atlantic sash to Pamplin, who accepts it with a joyous expression of disbelief.

"There's no crying in leather," Pamplin yells in a quavering voice, but it's too late. As Pamplin stands for pictures, resplendent in his dress leather attire of knee-high boots and a leather tie, the ballroom of burly men has erupted in tears.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.

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