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Conversations with Leather: Bob Miller

By April 29, 2021




Dave Rhodes had the opportunity to catch CLAW co-founder Bob Miller about the same time CLAW would have been held in Cleveland, OH had it not been for the pandemic. Bob now lives in Desert Hot Springs, CA. Here's what we found out...


Dave - Bob, please introduce yourself to our readers with a few words about your background.

Bob - I was born in the sixties in Pontiac, Michigan, the sixth of seven children of Dick and Peg Miller.  My Dad was a book keeper for GM and my Mom a college educated full time housewife. They raised us to value honesty and hard work; humor and common sense; and to love our fellow man.  We seven became strong, independent, socially adept people.

After college I moved to San Francisco, still closeted to my family and most of my friends.  I bought my first pair of leather pants and met my first boyfriend later that night at a bar called The Brig (now the Powerhouse), located at the corner of Folsom Street and Dore Alley.  On my first trip back to the Midwest, I came out as gay to my family and to the world.  Leather would remain a big secret for decades, even though it occupied most of my thoughts and most of my free time day and night, day after day and night after night.

We moved to New York and broke up later that year.  I worked as a waiter in a union shop and was elected Shop Steward.  I went to Spike leather bar almost every night.  AIDS was a scary epidemic and for many years there was no HIV test or medicines, and no certainty about how it was transmitted.  When we learned that anal sex was the primary culprit, I didn’t need a test to know my status.  It was almost a statistical certainty that I was positive. 

When I was 28, I fell in love with a sexy German who lived in Amsterdam and who was friends with Thomas Karasch who had won IML a couple years before.  I spent two months touring the USA on the back of his motorcycle, literally living in leather from coast to coast and back.  Back in New York I bought a motorcycle, in part to provide an acceptable explanation for wearing leather, and drove it to Chicago every Memorial Day to be part of IML.

I went to law school and began to practice law in midtown Manhattan.  Suddenly AIDS death was everywhere in my life.  More than half of the 80 or so men in my gay bowling league died of AIDS within just a few years. I tested positive and tried all the meds, and expected to die in my thirties.  I joined Act Up New York and worked on gay rights impact litigation as a Cooperating Attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund

In 1995 I had to go on disability due to fatigue, wasting, and low T-cells after only 5 years if practice.  The Internet was brand new and I began using it to connect with leather men everywhere.  Within a few months I moved to Chicago for a man I met in an AOL chat room.  When we split, I moved into the weekend house I had bought in SW Michigan.  I did not expect to stay long.  I began looking for the next Mr. Right and now there was Leather Navigator and WorldLeatherMan (now Recon) and BLUF.  The Internet had opened up the world in a big way. I joined the Chicago Hellfire Club and began attending Inferno.

New HIV meds were more effective but came with harsh side effects.  I was prescribed anabolic steroids to combat weight loss.  I had always been tall and skinny with a handsome face.  As if by magic I added 40 pounds of muscle and a new life did begin at 40.  I had the attention of an unlimited number of sexy leather men from around the world.  I had an address book with hundreds of screen names and phone numbers, organized by location.

In 2001 I met Dennis McMahon who became Mr. Cleveland Leather 2001.  I entered three different contests myself -- finally winning the third one -- so I could be an IML contestant with Dennis. 

Wait – did you say “a few words?”



Dave - Yes – but that’s OK.  What a story! Looking back, when did you first decide you are a Leatherman?

Bob - There was no moment of decision.  It was somehow in me from an early age, long before I was an adult or had any sexual awareness.  I played bondage games as a child – always as the captive.  Before I had sex I went to an X-rated movie at the Adonis Theater in Minneapolis – something with Leather in the title.  There was a scene with a Leather Master and some submissives playing pool.  Even then the scripted plot rang inauthentic, but the soundtrack was Venus in Furs by the Velvet Underground.  I was a Lou Reed fan and he was singing lyrics that included lines like “Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather.  Shiny leather in the dark” and “taste the whip in love not given lightly.  Taste the whip, now bleed for me.”  All at once I knew that there were lots of men into leather and domination.  My heart was racing and I think I left the theater without hanging around for the sex scenes.  I became sexually active very soon after that. I sought out leather and dominance without any hesitation.  I have always been a bottom who looks and acts like a top.


A CLAW 2005 Bob Dennis 


Dave - Many of us are aware that you and Dennis McMahon founded CLAW. Tell us a little bit about the dream of CLAW.

Bob - After IML, we were traveling around the country attending “step down” events for many of our IML 2001 brothers.  A Cleveland native, Dennis wanted to “do something in Cleveland” and asked if I’d help.  I said yes and suggested that we create an event without a contest, thinking it might be more fun for more people.  I wanted to reproduce the fun of IML and MAL -- in the lobby that is, not on the stage.  We needed something to get people to come though.  The critical mass was everything.  I suggested we make it a big fundraiser and hold it the weekend after MAL so that our Bavarian friend Stefan Mueller, IML 2001, would plan a trip that included Cleveland after Washington.  My friend Tony had a design studio and print shop and we got advertising materials and a logo from him.  Dennis and I went to work inviting everyone to come to CLAW, and asking for donations for a silent auction.  We built it and they came.

That “no contest” decision opened our minds to all the other things CLAW could be: education, parties, entertainment, fundraising, dungeon events, meals, games, art, cultural excursions – all connected to the leather sex and BDSM that connected us. 

After the success of the first CLAW, we formed a non-profit corporation and CLAW volunteerism and support has grown steadily ever since.  Because it isn’t built around a few people on a stage, it’s able to be built on the ideas of a multitude of leather folks, and the diversity of what they hoped to get out of it.  We have tried to say “yes” to every good idea someone has had.  As a result, CLAW is a new kind of community building event and organization because people who attended have ways to make the event theirs -- ways that weren’t possible at a contest event or a leather bar or a play party. 

We kept up the charismatic invitations too.  Over time, the outreach to other events and organizations changed from promoting CLAW to providing assistance to the communities and organizations everywhere, all year long. 




Dave - Very impressive.  But wait – back up again.  You and Dennis did not become life partners.  Did you ever find the next Mr. Right?

Bob - I did!  I met Jim, a college professor from Milwaukee.  We fell in love and much to my surprise and delight, he moved to my house in the woods in Michigan to pursue an idyllic Master/slave relationship.  We were together for 16 years, eventually getting married and then divorced.  We remain close today and expect the same for all the tomorrows.  Jim helped me succeed building CLAW and the Leather Hall of Fame and a hugely successful progressive grass roots political organization and Obama campaign office in rural Michigan. 

There came a point when, between the leather community, politics and the evolving duties of a house slave, I managed three bottomless pits of volunteer obligation for a long time.  Eventually something had to give.  I left political organizing and accepted a full-time paid position to run CLAW. 

Jim and I started wintering in Palm Springs in 2013 and moved out of the Michigan house for good in 2017.  I moved into my own house in Desert Hot Springs in December 2019.  And yes -- you guessed it – just when I was starting to look for Mr. Right yet again, for the second time in my life an unannounced virus arrived less than three month later, this one changing everything for everyone almost overnight.


 A Bob Miller Assembly 2017


Dave - Yes it did.  The coronavirus has kicked the world's ass for more than a year now. Events, bars, shops and organizations have shut down. There was no CLAW in 2020 and CLAW 21 has been delayed until Thanksgiving.  What has it been like for you and for CLAW?

Bob - The plans for CLAW 20 -- and the team assembled to produce it -- were both watersheds for our organization.  The pandemic hit just six weeks before the triumph that would have been CLAW 20, and COVID19 filled all of our lives with previously unthinkable suffering, sorrow and devastation. 

Not only was the watershed erased, we went from being just a chip shot away from passing the million dollars donated mark to losing 95% of our annual revenue and erasing the nest egg it took 20 years to save.  All events, venues and the sheer possibility of meeting with people was gone.

In an effort to help ease people’s pain -- and to hopefully defer our financial ruin -- we decided to create Virtual CLAW (“VC”) for the same dates that would have been CLAW 20.  Beginning in late March, 2020, four of us: Merrill Squiers (CLAW Systems Guru), boy Shannon (CLAW Volunteer and Registration Director), Chris Howlett (CLAW Coordinator and my heir apparent) and I -- worked very hard, climbing a bunch of new learning curves at once, figuring out how to produce a good virtual event. 

The outcome, the community response and the resulting gratification were tremendous.  Long story short, we have now produced nine VC’s and a new community has grown up around those events.  We have been able to bring together as many as 300 people from 14 different countries in one weekend to enjoy remarkable content and great production. 

We also started an online store (clawstore.org) to help kinky artists, helped a UW Milwaukee film student produce an excellent short film called Leatherboy, began a Leather Hall of Fame newsletter called Permanent Marks and are in the process of developing two different types of on-demand content from the VC recordings.  We may give it a new name at some point, but we intend to continue VC indefinitely. 

All of this has been difficult.  I have never worked harder in my life.  But thanks to the resilience and generous spirit of the leather communities of the world, the 2020 triumph and watershed ended up being far greater than the CLAW 20 that got away. 




Dave - Tell us about CLAW 21 in November in Los Angeles, and CLAW 22 next April in Cleveland:

Bob - Sure!  I’m so happy to share all the good news about the big bright light at the end of this l-o-n-g tunnel. 

CLAW 21 will be at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles!  It is a magnificent hotel – the largest in the city.  The management of the hotel listened to our story and decided to help us create a successful CLAW 21 in LA.  Rooms are only $139/night and valet parking only $15/night -- both substantially discounted from their regular rates.  Most important, they gave us the entire hotel, 3x as many guest rooms and 4x as much meeting space as our hotel in Cleveland.  We are very busy working with L.A. and Southern California groups and individuals to create and produce an event that celebrates the talents and of the Los Angeles and Southern California leather communities.  Registration is open and rooms are being reserved at a fast pace.  We will have more details every week for the next seven months. 

Of course, everything depends on it being safe to meet in large groups in November.  We will likely require proof of vaccination or a current negative test to attend. 


Dave - Even though you have made it clear that CLAW will still be in Cleveland, many still are afraid CLAW will flee Cleveland for the glitz of Hollywood. How do you assure CLAW attendees and supporters that Cleveland not fear the loss of its crown jewel in Leather?

Bob - CLAW is a Cleveland success story.  More than 1000 volunteers help us produce it.  We have strong, enduring connections to dozens of Cleveland businesses and organizations.  We have absolutely no intention of leaving. 

CLAW 22 is April 27- May 1, 2022 at the Westin Downtown Cleveland and a soon-to-be announced magnificent second hotel.  Hundreds of people and dozens of vendors are already registered by virtue of their transferred CLAW 20 registrations.  We’re grateful to all of them for allowing us some working capital to stay afloat for 2 years!  Our dates for 2023 and beyond are being held by our Cleveland hotels in anticipation of new contracts with CLAW.  Most hotel sales people are still furloughed. 

I’m not sure what other proof I can offer except to say again that Peg and Dick did not raise a fool or a liar -- CLAW is not leaving Cleveland!




Dave - What was your proudest moment with CLAW to date?

Bob - This may sound corny, but it is true.  The proudest moment keeps changing.  I am known for saying that “this is going to be the best CLAW ever” over and over, year after year.  I say it so often because I always mean it and it is always true. 

Another answer is to describe a hundred different moments through the years, all of them somewhat the same as one another.  In the days and weeks after CLAW ends -- and sometimes out of the blue during the rest of the year --  I open an email from someone I don’t know and read about how grateful and happy they are because something happened at CLAW that changed their life in a very big way.  Sometimes they met the love of their life or the best friend ever.  Sometimes they tried something new or learned something important about themselves.  I am so lucky to be the one who gets those messages.  More than anything, they make me proud of the work I do. 


Dave - What, not related to the pandemic, has been your toughest challenge with CLAW and how did you deal with it?

Bob - Dealing with incorrect or misinformed banter on Facebook.  Most of it is from people who don’t know me and who probably have good intentions but choose not to approach me or CLAW directly.  Most significantly, we still get accused of being anti trans, in spite of our clear and long record to the contrary.  If anyone reading this needs more convincing, please contact me directly.  Posting it on Facebook causes continued mistrust and misunderstanding, and hurts a lot of good people.  This is deadly serious.  Being trans in today’s world is scary and difficult.  Together, we must build an unshakable cis-trans alliance for a better world day by day.   

It hurts more than I care to admit to be accused of misogyny or lack of enlightenment for wanting CLAW to remain a male-focused event, or lack of diversity for idealizing and fetishizing masculinity itself.  These complaints are also usually from well-intentioned people who want CLAW to be something that it isn’t, to the point where they publicly demand it of us.  We’re flattered that CLAW matters enough for them to say something, but we aren’t uncertain about what we’re doing.  The “male space” aspect of CLAW is an essential part of its appeal and success.  CLAW attendees, including the women who attend, like CLAW the way it is.



Dave - There is more to your life than producing CLAW. We are aware you have done so much for Leather. What have you gotten out of Leather?

Bob - Historic joy and contentment.  Epic orgasms and endorphins.  Private, intimate connections with amazing, dominant men.  No matter what I accomplish professionally, these private things will always be the most important things leather has given me.  That’s why those emails from strangers thanking me or us for the unique and important joy in their life are the best part of my job.

My work on CLAW, the Leather Hall of Fame and with other organizations was an abrupt and drastic change in my professional career.  To quote Robert Frost, I chose not just the “road less traveled,” I picked a road that has never been traveled.  It has indeed “made all the difference.”  I’m happy that my work creates opportunities that help thousands lead more fulfilling lives; and raises awareness in our struggle for peace, love and understanding.  I am happy that it raises substantial money to supports the work of many other important community organizations.

And then there’s my big, futuristic satisfaction, the one described in the IML speech I wrote 20 years ago but never delivered having missed out on the top 20 in the contest.  Our world is still in the early stages of understanding sex.  Leather and BDSM were and -- for most -- still are hidden, deviant, unhealthy, illegal and more.  But I foresee a day in the future of understanding and enlightenment, one that looks back at the leather communities that emerged beginning in the 1950s and regards us as heroic trailblazers.  We stood up to that widespread condemnation and taught each other the truth about our loving and healthy spirits.


Dave - You are given a night on the town where you have the keys to the city. What would this be like? Who would be with you? Fancy dinner and all that other stuff - tell us.

Bob - A romantic dinner with a sexy man who is crazy about me.  David’s boyfriend on Schitt’s Creek would be fine, or a super twisted sadistic athlete or teacher or therapist.  Maybe a drink with Margaret Cho, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen beforehand?  I’d love to meet Barack and Michelle Obama.  I don’t want keys to the city, but if time travel is allowed then I’d like to see Amy Winehouse perform in a bar in Camden and go shoot some pool with her afterwards.  If David Bowie and Prince were there too, that would be cool.  And if Mr. Right Again is there, I bet he’d like that key you mentioned.




Dave - Where do you see CLAW 10 years from now?

Bob - I expect to retire as Executive Director in less than 5 years.  I will likely stay on as President of the Board and in a rain-making and advisory capacity.  I expect the new Executive Director to continue producing the “best CLAW ever” every year.


Dave - Where do you see Bob Miller 10 years from now?

Bob - Living with a sexy man who knows and loves me very much and using all my special capacities to keep him happy every day and every night.  I’d like to write a novel or two, and possibly a memoir.




Dave - If there is anything you feel we missed, or you want to add, please include it here.

Bob - You didn’t ask me anything about my fantasy baseball team or my dog, but that’s OK.  Thanks for this opportunity, Dave, and for all your love for and support of CLAW.


Dave - Thank you and best wishes for CLAW-LA and CLAW in Cleveland.