Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend (CLAW), the much-loved annual leather conference held every April in Cleveland, Ohio, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year the same way everyone celebrated everything in 2020: virtually.
With just a month to pull the revamped weekend together, the CLAW team created an online experience that attracted more than 300 people, spawning an entirely new branch of the community festival.
Fifteen months later, the 10th Virtual CLAW (“VC”) will take place via Zoom July 9–11—a build-up of sorts to a rescheduled and relocated CLAW 21, live and in-person November 24–28 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
We spoke to Founder and Executive Director Bob Miller about his story, the quick shift in focus, the power and dedication of the leather community, and how 2020 has altered the organization.
“When I was coming of age in the 1970’s, interest in fetish and BDSM was considered a disease,” Miller recalls. “At 20 I went to my first porn movie at the Adonis Theater in downtown Minneapolis. The scene was contrived, but the soundtrack playing behind it was The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Fur.” Lou fucking Reed was singing about “shiny boots of leather” and “whips” in “love not given lightly.” It literally changed my life. That was the moment that I knew I wasn’t alone. All at once I knew there must be hundreds of thousands or even millions of others like me. I was 20. I was a kid who had never even had sex—and I was about to start having it all the time.”
On the first ever CLAW in Los Angeles.
We’re so excited to be holding CLAW 21 in L.A. We’re not leaving Cleveland, but for pandemic related reasons, we couldn’t do it in Cleveland this year. The Bonaventure is fucking amazing and so is the Los Angeles leather community. In the end, the pandemic has led us to a much bigger future: two-events-a-year, April in Cleveland and November in L.A.
On finding content to attract online attendees.
The ideas for VC started with education. Teaching one another is a definitional aspect of the leather community. We teach each other how to play and interact in ways that are both edgy and safe, both gratifying and enduring. So VC, like regular, in-person CLAW, has always contained entertaining educational programs on BDSM technique and safety. There’s also content on health and community. We teach each other that our interest in leather, kink, and BDSM is normal and healthy, and how it can lead to happier, more fulfilling lives.
We also organized a virtual kinky art show, to display and discuss kinky art submitted by 16 artists from five different countries. Kinky artists don’t have a lot of outlets even in a “normal” world, so they’re very eager for any opportunity for their work to be seen and appreciated. The Art Show led to creating clawstore.org, where much of the art is featured and can be purchased. We also launched Permanent Marks, a periodic newsletter of the Leather Hall of Fame (“LHOF”), an academic organization that recognizes substantial contributions to the community over time. The LHOF tells stories that would otherwise be largely forgotten, histories that are hidden from Wikipedia and Google and even the community itself.
Our vendors and sponsors make substantial contributions to VC, through raffles, sales, and product discussions. And our beneficiary organizations have kept us informed about the important work that they do. CLAW is 100 percent non-profit and has donated almost $1 million these critically important community organizations.
And of course much of the content is about sex and connections. Like CLAW itself, VC gives people a chance to engage in and appreciate online sexual behavior and display. We’ve had speed dating, where men can meet others who are into what they’re into. We’ve had Fetish Affinity small groups. We have socials with all the microphones unmuted. And our Saturday night Gear Party is scheduled for three hours but now routinely lasts twice that long.
On the leather community’s image.
Tom of Finland–style hypermasculinity is definitely an important and central component of leather and of our desire to do the things we do. But the world is full of all kinds of kinky people and increasingly there’s a notable expansion of that magnificent archetype. Younger people in particular are less focused on masculinity in their kink, and obviously almost no one actually has the massive muscle and cocks depicted in the artwork of Tom of Finland, Etienne, and others. Our community is filled with all kinds of beautiful people of various shapes and personalities and other human characteristics that we embrace. CLAW is a community-driven event that says “yes” to everyone’s good ideas. Our long weekends consist of more than 250 events and exhibitors and requires more than 1,000 volunteers to produce.
On the enduring popularity of leather and fetish and kink.
Sex will always be a big motivating force in people’s lives. Fetish sex — kinky sex — is even more powerful. When you feel that within yourself, it can inspire and inform huge swaths of your existence. Until the past 100 years, sex hasn’t been studied much scientifically. Compared to other aspects of life, our understanding of it is just getting started.
On the trans contingent of the leather community.
Trans people are under attack, and a cis-trans alliance is essential to raise awareness in society at large. CLAW has never looked to the gender marker on someone’s state-issued ID to determine if someone is a man. If you tell us you are a man, you are a man. For six years we have included trans-specific events at CLAW, and we don’t tolerate trans-phobic behavior from anyone.
On being a men’s event.
It is a men’s event. Women are welcome and valued at CLAW and I can give lots of examples of women who play very significant roles at CLAW. The women at CLAW like it the way it is. The men at CLAW are there for the men at CLAW.
On what to expect at July’s Virtual CLAW.
We have interviews with community icons Guy Baldwin and Gloria Brame. We have demonstrations on electro-play and enhancing sex through hypnosis. We have community discussions on sex after COVID19 vaccines, understanding pup play, flagging in the digital age, and the “War on Porn,” featuring Treasure Island Media head Paul Stag. We’ll hear from Leather Archives & Museum Executive Director Gary Wasdin on some of the ways that great organization has adapted to and thrived on Zoom. And we’re going to talk a lot about the evolving plans for CLAW 21 in Los Angeles this November and CLAW 22 in Cleveland next April. And of course we’ll have a big raffle for a $2,050 VIP package for two to CLAW 21, including four-night accommodations in a Tower Suite at the Bonaventure Hotel. Raffle tickets start at only $10 and are available at clawinfo.org/raffle.