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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)

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.

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