Inside Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend: An Educational Fetish Gathering For The #MeToo Era

In addition to the standard leather fare, CLAW prioritizes classes centered on mental health and issues of consent.

On most of the materials handed out at this year’s Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend (CLAW) was a print of a muscled leatherman half inside of his motorcycle jacket wearing jodhpurs, a thick belt, and a cap. It came printed on the event’s official passes, on the t-shirts handed out as merchandise, and on the fronts of all the programs. Many attendees thought it was the work of Tom of Finland, a gay artist known for his photorealistic portrayals of hypermasculine gay men engaging in sex while wearing fetish gear. But they were mistaken.

“I’ve been telling guys all weekend that this is not Tom,” Robert Miller, a founder of the event, said in a breakout session from CLAW on Sunday. “We love Tom, certainly, but this is not his work. This is Etienne,” he added, referring to Domingo Orejudos, who was a contemporary of Tom’s and with whom his subject matter sometimes overlapped.

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From left: CLAW co-founder and founder of the Leather Hall of Fame Robert Miller, International Mr. Leather 1994 Jeff Tucker, and International Mr. Leather 2017 Ralph Bruneau wearing Domingo Orejudos t-shirts.

Those teaching moments, exposing attendees to an artist they may have heard of only in name, connected to the primary reason CLAW distinguishes itself from other leather weekends aimed at queer men: education.

“We didn’t invent skills and education [classes],” Miller told NewNowNext in an interview last Sunday, talking specifically about kink, leather, and BDSM conferences. “But we have more of it than anybody else.” And with over 100 scheduled classes taking place over the span of two days, they decidedly do.

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In 2002, CLAW began as a series of bar nights organized by Miller and Dennis McMahon, who were both leather titleholders. While the idea started with McMahon, who had been Mr. Cleveland Leather, Miller added to it, suggesting that the event come after Mid Atlantic Leather, another popular event on the leather circuit, and that it not involve a contest.

“That first weekend I thought, ‘Everyone is sick of contests, so let’s just not have one,’” Miller said. In its place, the event was a fundraiser for leather and queer affiliated causes and a bit of a reunion for all of the titleholders they had met over the span of their title years. “We also had a little educational hour or two at the LGBT community center in Cleveland. Education has been a part of CLAW since the beginning.”

Now, that educational element stands as a key point of differentiation between CLAW and other events.

Over the weekend, classes included a range of hands-on lessons about cigar play, flogging, and fisting, in addition to talks about headspace and dealing with emotions as they relate to BDSM. Brad Sargarin, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, taught a “Science of BDSM” class, which gave rise to a conversation about whether the actions of the community are sadistic even if BDSM play is only encouraged with consent.

“Education is a good 50% to 70% of CLAW,” said Doug Steven, a co-coordinator of the week’s skills and education classes. “There are [pansexual] weekends that have a lot of education, but as far as gay weekends, CLAW kind of tries to offer more diversity and education.” Beyond offering the hands-on workshops like suspension and a host of pup play-centered lessons, the team ensures that there are classes that are particularly timely for conversations happening in our culture at large.

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“This year, consent has been running rampant across the country with #MeToo and so forth, so a lot of our classes reflected mental health and consent issues,” Steven said. “So we try to offer the classes everybody knows and expects, but they also want to offer classes that are needed and timely.” This year those classes included a breakout session titled “A State of Mind, a State of Heart: How Mental Health Challenges Intertwine with BDSM and Power Exchange Relationships,” as well as “Know the Difference: Healthy BDSM vs. Abuse.” Given the lack of gay sex and BDSM education in the U.S., these lessons are essential to CLAW’s mission.

“I always laugh about coming to the CLAW conference because it feels like so many of these other professional development things that I go to for the rest of my life,” attendee Christopher Kaufman said. ”There are workshops and keynotes and awards and all that stuff, and yet it’s all kink. So when I come, I love doing the classes—I never get to as many as I want to. I always try what I wouldn’t otherwise know about… it has been really educational and I’ve loved going.”

This year, there was also a suite of historical knowledge for attendees. Lessons like “The Origins of Twenty-First Century Leather,” taught by noted cultural anthropologist Dr. Gayle Rubin, traced the modern version of this community back to the 1950s and showed practitioners that they are a part of a lineage. But with the Carter Johnson Leather Library hosting a display at the host hotel, it was clear that the history of kink stretches back through the 17th century.

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“In 15 years, this is the first men’s event that we’ve gotten to do, so I was so excited,” founder Viola Johnson said after explaining that over 200 men came to look through some of the books, posters, and old magazines in her display. Among them were old copies of the Leather Journal, Black Leather…In Color, as well as Physique Pictorial. “Most men’s spaces are already so chock full when they plan an event between parties, vendors, spaces for play, that education in any shape or form is kind of an afterthought. But for CLAW, it’s a priority.”

None of this, however, gets in the way of doing what most leather and kink weekends do. CLAW and its affiliated CLAW Nation fundraiser raised over $80,000 for a variety of organizations last year, bringing their total fundraising to over $800,000. It also served as a time of communion for members of the community, enjoying everything from talent shows to shopping at vendor marts, while not feeling ostracized for their fetishes or sexual proclivities.

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And of course, there is the sex. “No matter how many people tell me how important education is at CLAW, I will still always put it second,” Miller said. “The most important thing is the sex, is the meeting, and the ability to finally let that fantasy come true, whatever it is.” Still, learning how to better safely execute those fantasies is vital for many.

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“Did you guys get into a lot of trouble?” one kilted attendee asked a couple as they queued for a shuttle headed to the Sunday cookout. His usage of trouble obviously a euphemism.

“No, not really,” one responded. He looked at his partner. “No,” they agreed.

“Well that’s sad, that’s the whole point of these kinds of weekends right?” the first guy asked.

“No,” the couple responded. “We learned a lot. That’s really why we come: The classes.”

Mikelle Street is a New York City-based freelance journalist writing about fashion, queerness and blackness and the intersections therein.
@mikellestreet