2020: Visions of Brilliance, Darkness, and Inspiration in the Global Leather Community

By Bob Miller

Bob and Jeroen
Bob Miller and Jeroen Van Lievenoogan at Darklands, March 5, 2020

On March 3, 2020, I travelled to Antwerp, Belgium to attend and help manage Darklands, formerly Belgium Leather Pride, which has quickly become Europe’s biggest indoor leather event by far. It is the triumphant product of the vision and hard work of my friend and Alphatribe magazine colleague Jeroen Van Lievenoogan.

I met Jeroen “on purpose” three years ago at Folsom Europe. I had seen the magazine and thought it was incredibly good. I wanted CLAW to be covered by it. I decided to throw a CLAW VIP party in Berlin so I could invite Jeroen to be there.

It was meant to be. Jeroen is 22 years younger than me and thousands of miles away but we’ve become close friends, collaborators, and confidants. We both build leather community for a living.  We build bridges for fetish communities that span the globe.

In a very real sense, there is no “leather” without community. We experience leather with each other. We learn about ourselves by meeting others like us. That’s CLAW’s Mission Statement. Alone we were deviant and troubled, but together we’re healthy and happy. Or at least we can be.

I would be gone ten days, until the 13th, with five days in Paris after the event. 2019 was a year of tumultuous year of death and upheaval for me. I cannot count how many times I forecasted redemption in 2020. It was off to a great start. The plans and the team of CLAW 20 were both giant leaps forward. Alphatribe USA was about to break even after 2.5 years of brand building. I had a new house in a new town. I was looking for a new love. I found myself using the words “watershed” and “brilliant” day after day.

Daniel Dumont's Annual Rib Dinner
Daniel Ruester, Bob Miller and Jeroen Van Lievenoogan on stage Darklands, March 7, 2020

Back then, with the sole exception of Milan, Italy, the Western world was still untouched by COVID 19. The total number of cases in Belgium was in the single digits. There were no cases in Ohio. We began talking about COVID at Darklands, reminding each other to wash our hands often. We did not know to wear masks. We did not expect CLAW or any other event to be cancelled.

By coincidence, my date for the weekend was from Milan. In the days and even hours before Giancarlo’s arrival, I feared he would not come. My heart soared when he texted me  a picture from our hotel room, brilliant light shining in the room, lighting up his gear and his handsome smile.

At Darklands I organize the Fetish Alliance VIP Party and work in the Alphatribe  booth,  and  this  year  I also agreed to run their debut year of speed dating and present two education sessions. I was interviewed on stage alongside the leaders of three other large events, and had the honor of bestowing  a surprise lifetime achievement award to Jeroen. It was a busy schedule. Opportunities -- business and otherwise -- were around me at all times.  I was up for it.

Daniel Dumont’s Annual Rib Dinner in Antwerp, March 8, 2020
Daniel Dumont’s Annual Rib Dinner in Antwerp, March 8, 2020. From left to right: Justin White (Chicago, USA); Daniel Dumont, Cosimo Capanni (Mr. Leatherman Italy 2019-2020), Gael Leung Chong (Mr. Belgium Leather 2020), Benjamin Beckers (Long-time friend and colleague), Fabian (Daniel’s boss at the bank), Peter de Laet (Antwerp, Belgium), Seán Redmond (Ireland), David Dean (Pittsburg, USA), Stephan Metzlar-Rudolf (Mr. Leather Netherlands 2020). Photo by John O’Brien (Ireland)

On Sunday night, Giancarlo and I went to the fifth annual rib dinner hosted by 11-year Leather Hall of Fame Selection Committee member Daniel Dumont. 170 people packed the restaurant that night, all invited by Daniel. Four years before, Daniel invited a table’s worth of current leather and rubber titleholders  from  around  Europe.    A tradition was started, and the rib dinner had grown every year since. We barely saw Daniel that night, and only spoke to thank him and say good night from 6 feet away. We had not heard of social distancing yet.  There were just too many people between us to get closer.

The next day in Paris – before even reaching my hotel room -- I was contacted on Recon by Etienne, the owner of Le Mensch, a leather bar in Paris. 100% active, my favorite category of profile. He told me he liked my profile a lot and was confident I would like him too. We agreed to meet on Wednesday at 7pm at his bar, which I later discovered didn’t open until 9. Before then we went to his home, on a boat, on the Seine. Slaves get fisted, he told me; they get trained and beaten too. When in Rome -- or Paris. Wednesday night went well into Thursday morning.

Bob Miller in Paris, March 10, 2020. Photo by Paul C.
Bob Miller in Paris, March 10, 2020. Photo by Paul C.

When I was allowed to turn my phone on, we learned that flights to the United States would be ending in less than two days, and that all the restaurants in Paris would be closed by the weekend.  From my hotel room I spoke to the Westin in Cleveland and secured new  dates for CLAW 20. All they could offer was November. I came back to California on the next day, coughing and exhausted, and was unceremoniously thrust into absolute solitude at my house.

My friend Mark brought me groceries the next day and left them in my driveway, texting   me when he was safely pulling away in his car.  I saw the tears in his eyes through the tears  in mine. I slept and I worried alone. A few days later I learned that Daniel Dumont was in a COVID induced coma. He would die by the weekend, less than 2 weeks after his rib dinner. What the fuck?!

Giancarlo remained healthy, as did Etienne, Jeroen and all the others I was close to during my trip. If I had COVID-19, I survived it, untested. Tests, we learned, were scarce in the United States.

Six months later, it is difficult to quantify or even describe the changes brought about by the global pandemic. A million people have died of COVID-19 already and we expect another million will die before the world is vaccinated. Impossibly, the United States is the country with the most infections and the most deaths. No one is allowed to travel to or from another country.

Daniel Dumont and Aleksei Grachev
Daniel Dumont and Aleksei Grachev – President St. Petersburg Leather Club, Russia. Photo by John O’Brien (Ireland)

There was no CLAW 20 in April and there will be no rescheduled CLAW 20 in November. The watershed advances that were inevitable were summarily taken away and replaced by gigantic, unthinkable reversals. There have been no leather events – big or small -- anywhere. The bars and clubs and stores were closed – some for months, and some forever. I am still alone in this house, as I have been almost every minute of every day and night since March 13th. Three  weeks  ago  I got a rescue dog named Stanley, after months of searching and applying. Stanley is a very good and sweet dog, and I openly refer to finding him as a mutual rescue.

But our leather community pandemic story is not only about physical distance, cancellations and losses imposed. Ours is a story of resilience and inspiration-- of our community, organizations and lifestyles. We’ve developed and improved ways to stay connected. Video chat rooms like the ones used by relatively few long before COVID, became a daily routine for many. CLAW and other organizations developed online programs and discussions that allowed people to keep in touch, share expertise and learn from one another safely during a pandemic.

The first Virtual CLAW (“VC”) was held in April on the dates that were to be CLAW 20. The response was so great and the results so gratifying, a monthly event was born and has thrived. We expect VC to continue after the return of in-person CLAW. In June at VC3, The Leather Hall of Fame presented a  program about our twelve-year history to more than fifty well-engaged people. Led by Robert Bienvenu, the panel described how we have worked, who we inducted, what criteria guided our choices, and much more. We polled our audience that day too, learning things we would not have discovered in person had the pandemic not occurred. Some members of that audience remained in touch and are now volunteering for our organization. Resilience. Inspiration.

Virtual CLAW 1: April 25, 2020
Virtual CLAW 1: April 25, 2020

We have important unfinished 2020 business. We will present and celebrate this year’s inductees on November 15 at VC6 on Zoom, two weeks before the selection committee begins to vote on the inductees for 2021. We expect that many more of Jim Ward’s friends and family will be able to attend than could ever make the trip to Cleveland. We look forward to being with him and involving them in our effort on his behalf. Similarly, the men of MLC Munich will be there in much bigger numbers, and we’re organizing a relatively larger group of community members for whom Pauline Réage’s “Story of O” played a pivotal role in their lives to be there too, to share their experience with all of us. Mark your calendar. 2-4 pm Eastern.

Photo by John O’Brien (Ireland)
In front of Antwerp Centraal. Back row- John O’Brien, Collie Rubb Ireland, Daniel Dumont, Thorsten Buhl, Front row-Wouter Popelier, Yves Blondel, Karin Beerten, Andrea Pressi. Photo by John O’Brien (Ireland)

We will also celebrate and honor the life of our late friend and colleague Daniel Dumont. Daniel was an enthusiastic, inspirational community builder, year after year. A leader of MSC Belgium, he became Secretary of the European Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs (ECMC) in 2009 and served in a leadership role ever since.

The ECMC has been with us a long  time,  and the word confederation is appropriate. Leather clubs -- motorcycle and otherwise -- have always been almost exclusively focused on their own meetings and other business, not on a confederation they are in. Clubs have meetings and organize events big and small. They create and run popular dungeons and play spaces. Leather is about people getting together, and clubs have played a big role creating and sustaining leather communities everywhere. Little or no attention is given to a leather confederation.

Daniel Dumont at Arctic Pride 2019 in Tromsø, Norway.
Arctic Pride 2019 in Tromsø, Norway. Photo by John O’Brien (Ireland)

Under Daniel’s leadership, the ECMC became a more activist and cohesive union, reaching out to new organizations in less typical places to the East and South of traditional  European leather capitals, and organizing and developing the annual Mr. Leather Europe contest and celebration. Daniel’s greatest gift was meeting people, and introducing them to others. With the Leather Hall of Fame, Daniel informed the selection committee about several nominees, providing valuable information and insight about which we would not have otherwise known.

And now, the imposition of physical distance by COVID-19 has prompted the start of this newsletter, PERMANENT MARKS, the newsletter of the Leather Hall of Fame. As with all we have done before, the goal of PERMANENT MARKS is to celebrate and tell the stories of those who have left permanent marks on leather, BDSM and fetish subcultures across boundaries of geography, sexual orientation and gender.

We expect PERMANENT MARKS to be an important new means to reach our goal. The features of the Leather Hall of Fame are defined after 12 years. We invite contributions and input from more people as our baby leaves its nest to live life on its own. Watch this space for news of other changes coming to the soon to be teen aged Leather Hall of Fame.

As is our tradition and our essential definition, we will do it together.

Desert Hot Springs, CA.
October 15, 2020

Bob Miller
Leather Hall of Fame: Founder/President
CLAW: Co-Founder, President and Executive Director
Alphatribe Magazine USA: General Manager
Fetish Alliance: Founder Partner
Darklands: Strategic Advisor and Old Unknown American