Gay leather fetishists gather to celebrate skins and substance

LEATHER SHOW: Bill Zybach of Washington uses a flag during his dance at the Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend on Capitol Hill.
LEATHER SHOW: Bill Zybach of Washington uses a flag during his dance at the Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend on Capitol Hill. (Matt Mcclain)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 7:30 PM

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."

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