Maybe it’s the Internet, maybe it’s modern-day romance novels, or maybe it’s Dan Savage’s brilliant advice column — but kink and BDSM seem more mainstream than ever. In the leather community, there are several major events, but the Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend, or CLAW, stands out for a couple of reasons. CLAW has been held since 2002 in this fantastic and very underrated Midwestern city (which also hosted the Gay Games in 2014). Over the years, the event has moved between downtown and suburban hotels, but it has been back in the city center since 2017.
Pup Blue hangs out in his crate at CLAW 2022 in Cleveland
Unlike most other leather events, there’s no contest involved here (think International Mr. Leather and so forth), and instead the focus is heavy on education and skills sessions — as well as raising money for charities. The 2019 event featured all sorts of records: 129 sessions, more than 2,200 attendees, and $85,000 raised for charity. This year’s event, back after a two-year hiatus, took place at the Westin Cleveland Downtown and the Hyatt Regency Cleveland at the Arcade, located a few blocks apart. Initial numbers being reported for this year’s event are 1,487 attendees and 106 skills and educational sessions — a solid rebound after two years off due to the global economic slowdown.
The event ran from Thursday through Sunday, with a bit of something for everyone. CLAW 2022 featured a 24-hour cigar bar area that stretched across the entire event, from Thursday through Sunday. There were four dinners and three breakfasts (all optional and for an additional fee). Attendees could also attend karaoke parties, dance parties, strip bingo, and the always popular closing event, Kinky Kabaret, on Sunday evening. Plus, there was a Kinky Art Show and store, pup and pet moshes, gear parties, and Bound & Beautiful, which featured 36 muscle bottoms and 12 bondage tops.
CLAW runs a wonderful program where volunteers get discounted passes for the entire event, which is a popular program and helps to keep CLAW affordable for people who are already paying for airfare and hotel rooms. Volunteers who sign up for two four-hour shifts receive the basic CLAW package, with a value of $229, for free. There were roughly 1,000 volunteers this year alone.
St. Andrew’s Crosses and other types of BDSM equipment were a common site
The Vendor Mart at the Westin boasted 45 vendors from across North America and an impressive list of things to buy. We encountered leather hats, harnesses, whips, puppy play masks, straps, and cleaning supplies — as well as sex toys, t-shirts, lube, books, adult diapers, videos, underwear, jockstraps, and BDSM supplies all the way up to St. Andrew’s Crosses.
The event’s 5th Annual SquarePegToys MisFit Toys sale raises funds for charity by selling sex toys that are a little off … maybe they came out too hard or soft or not quite perfect. The line for the limited-time sale was incredible and stretched across the Westin, testament to the popularity of this annual event, as well as the deals to be had.
My husband and I took advantage of the free HIV and STD screening offered and learned more about the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and The Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance. NCSF (www.ncsfreedom.org) advocates politically for adults in the BDSM, leather, fetish, swing, and polyamory communities — and also educates on proper consent and abusive situations. TASHRA (www.tashra.org) is a nonprofit that focuses on improving mental health in the BDSM and kink communities. It also conducts research unique to the communities it serves and works for more equitable healthcare and social policies.
On-site haircuts were available from the Bondage Barber
Skills & education sessions
A friend scoffed when I remarked that there were going to be educational classes as CLAW, but they were legitimate and impressive. They ran the gamut as far as topics, and I found them to be serious and informative. For example, we sat in on the Gaining and Encouraging class, where the presenters discussed the work involved and potential pitfalls of gaining weight, whether for bulk, muscle, or both. There was a discussion about fat shaming and stigma around different body types and beauty standards.
Classes at CLAW are divided up into nine sections: ass play/sex, bondage, community, fetish, gear, health, power dynamic, sex, and SM. Some are geared toward beginners, such as Bondage for Beginners or Mummufication 101, while others are more graduate level classes, like Flogging 2.0 and Zap Your Sub. I was impressed with the breadth of the classes offered, with fascinating topics that included an Asian Caucus, Consent for the Older Generation, Kinky Life Drawing, What Leather Was Like In 1987, Erotic Boxing, and Discover Your Leather Fashion.
Off-site dungeon space at The Academy
Participants also made use of off-site venues, including The Leather Stallion bar, The Academy, a local dungeon, and Flex, a large regional bathhouse — all located within a 10-minute drive. There were frequent shuttle buses between the venues for all passholders. Much discussed was the Horse Market, a private event run by HorseMarket SF (horsemarketsf.com) and based on the famous (or would that be infamous?!) Fickstutenmarkt party in Berlin. Here, male-identified persons must decide if they’ll be Mares (bottoms) or Stallions (tops). The Mares are naked and blindfolded and ready to be mounted before the Stallions arrive.
CLAW is well known for raising money for worthy charities, such as CARAS (Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities) and the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. Nearly a million dollars has been raised over the years (not including this year’s event, which seems poised to break through that impressive milestone). CLAW itself is a 501c3 charity that is dedicated to fundraising, education, volunteerism, and other charitable needs of the leather community.
CLAW returns to Cleveland for 2022
“CLAW looks to groups that have a hard time finding funding,” says Tom Stebel, who’s on the group’s Board of Directors and is the Chairperson of the Beneficiary Committee. “A lion’s share of donations goes to preserving the history of the Leather Community through the Leather Hall of Fame and Tom of Finland Foundation. If CLAW doesn’t fund these organizations, who will? They are preserving a portion of our collective queer history so that we aren't erased. CLAW’s early support of the local LGBT Center helped it at a time when even keeping the doors open and lights on was proving difficult. Eventually, CLAW provided the funding so that the Center could hire a staff member designated to oversee their SAGE program. Another group, called Leather Heart Foundation, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of CLAW. It provides emergency funding for those in the kink community who find themselves having financial difficulties. And CLAW is proud to support our first International Beneficiary, the Rainbow Railroad, which helps LGBTQ people abroad who are seeking asylum get to safety.”
You can view the rest of the pictures from CLAW 2022 in Cleveland here.