Kip Hollar had no particular interest in leather. The Baltimore resident was at Baltimore Pride in 2008 and stopped at a few of the leather booths to say hi to friends he knew in COMMAND and ShipMates, two local leather clubs.
One of the clubs was sponsoring a charity fundraiser. Pay $5 to let them dress you up in leather and take your photo.
“I didn’t have any real interest in it,” Hollar says. “But they kept egging me on. That’s where it all began. I liked what I saw and felt.”
Hollar is shocked at how quickly the leather community embraced him. He came in second in the 2008 Mr. Maryland leather contest, which qualified him to enter Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather, which he won last year. This weekend he’ll be on the judging panel to help decide his successor.
Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend is this weekend in Washington. Most participants stay at Washington Plaza Hotel. The contest is Sunday afternoon at 9:30 club. The weekend will culminate with the Reaction Dance, also at 9:30, which will go into the wee hours Monday morning.
“I don’t even remember hearing my name called,” Hollar says. “I didn’t think I had a chance.”
He also says he doesn’t know why or how he won.
“Maybe it’s because I was new to the leather community. Fresh into the scene, with a younger, fresher perspective. I’m not sure, but I’ve definitely become involved in the community and have taken the ball and run with it,” the 33-year-old says.
Contestants are judged in a private pre-show interview, then model jock, formal and bar leather on stage. They give a speech and talk about their community involvement.
Hollar says the appeal for him is the sense of community leather offers.
“It’s the brotherhood that’s in it, the camaraderie, the unity.”
But let’s be real, there’s a strong sexual component as well, right?
“Leather is a fetish lifestyle,” he says. “How sexual you make it is up to you. It’s what you make of it. It’s first and foremost the social, but certainly there is a sex appeal. With the love of the fetish, there’s the feel, the smell, the taste, the look. For most people there is a sexual component.”
Mid-Atlantic Leather, organized each year by the Centaur Motorcycle Club, is the world’s largest club-run gay leather event and is in its 26th year. Only Chicago’s International Mr. Leather is larger. Organizers guess it’s in the top five of all gay leather events in terms of size with about 1,000 people registered for the weekend. A few thousand others come for one or two side events but don’t stay the whole weekend. There are sometimes up to 5,000 participants in total throughout the weekend.
The main event is leather cocktails, a social event that started in New York 36 years ago where enthusiasts don their favorite “uniforms” and mingle with each other among open bar and buffet. The Mr. Leather contest and the closing night party are the other main features but side parties are held for sub-fetish groups: sports gear, cigar smokers, uniforms and so on.
This year’s weekend will not be significantly different from years past. Next year the group, realizing it’s outgrown Washington Plaza Hotel, is moving to the Hyatt on Capital Hill, which is twice as large.
Involvement levels run the full gamut, but organizers such as promotions chair Larry Barat, say the ones who attend the weekend tend to take it seriously.
“It attracts a crowd that’s much more committed to the community,” he says. “They’re more serious about the lifestyle. Not the sort of people who, not to be derogatory, but we don’t attract a lot who are just interested in playing dress up. It’s people who are committed to the community and the lifestyle and curious about getting into the lifestyle, rather than those hangers on who just think they look good in a harness.”
And just what is the lifestyle, exactly? It’s a world, after all, that gays in many circles have come to shun.
“There’s certainly a range and there are people who live 24/7 in what one would call a leather lifestyle, maybe in a sub/dom relationship,” Barat says.
Though leather has gained increased acceptance as the gay community itself has made gains, Barat says there’s still stigma. Leather groups have sometimes been discouraged, he says, from participating in gay rights marches.
“The attitude is changing, but it’s no coincidence that you see ads coming out from HRC with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed lesbians in polo shirts with their three kids,” he says. “The subtle message there is we’re just like you.”
Actually the gay leather community is probably more “like you” for the straight world than some realize. Barat says gay leather events pale in size to those held by the straight leather community. It’s a fetish not confined by sexual orientation, he says.
Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend
Today through Monday
Washington Plaza Hotel, et. al.