Imagine it is 1938
and you have just celebrated your eighteenth birthday. And you are gay.
To be sure, you would not have called yourself “gay.” You probably have no words at all to describe who you are. All you knew was that some men inspire in you something that was possibly interpreted as “hero worship” by others, you admire them, you emulate them, you want to be close to them. But you know it was more than that, because when you are close to them, so close that you can smell their musk and notice the stubble at the nape of their necks or watch the muscles in their forearms writhe as they struggle at some manual task, your dick gets hard.
You know, instinctively, that these feelings for other men must be your secret, because all animals know when they risk mortal danger. No one can ever suspect.
In 1938, this country was still very much an agricultural nation. Most of the population lived not in cities but in small towns or the farms that surrounded them. So you live in a place where you knew everyone and everyone knew you and you can expect to spend the rest of your life there.
Because of your desires, your life is going to be one of misery, loneliness, and fear. The overarching fear is that someone will see you and know in a flash what you are. That leads to the loneliness because you could never unburden yourself, never show who you are to anyone, not even the people closest to you. You have to guard yourself constantly. You have to keep others at bay either through cultivating eccentricities, presenting yourself as a fool and a clown, or by a foul disposition and hair trigger temper. And these result in misery. The most you could hope for was to get some clueless young woman to marry you, making two people miserable instead of just one, because she will always sense your distance and lie awake nights wondering why in spite of her best efforts to be for you a good and loving wife she only earns your contempt and derision.
But then, on December 7th, 1941, salvation comes: the Empire of Japan bombs the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Hawaii. The United States enters the Second World War. You and thousands of other young men are swept up from your little farm towns and factory towns and become soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Very quickly, in basic training, on troop ships, in barracks, you discover that far from being “the only one,” your numbers are legion. One night, a little drunk, even though there’s nothfing like a dame, you “help a buddy out,” and he returns the favor, and love blossoms, and soon the two of you are something of an item.
Homosexuality was rife in the armed forces during World War II. Many of the aspects of gay culture today date from this time. On troop ships there were drag shows. We call a blow job a blow job because that was the term invented by our boys in uniform in the 1940s.
Somewhere, some captain was appalled by what he saw going on all around him. He typed out a memorandum to his commanding officer who passed it up to his commanding officer who sent it further up the chain of command and eventually this memorandum landed on the desk of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although Roosevelt had overseen a witch hunt directed at “perverts” when he was Secretary of the Navy in 1917, this was his war to prosecute. Also, Sumner Welles was a close friend to Roosevelt and his Undersecretary of State. Sumner Welles was a homosexual and Roosevelt knew it. Roosevelt did all he could to protect Welles when he was caught up in a scandal after propositioning a hotel porter.
Roosevelt was clear in his directive: leave the queers alone.
After this, there was even less reason to hide.
When the war was over, the military discharged service men primarily through three port cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City.
So after the gay old time you had during the war, let’s say you find yourself again a civilian in Los Angeles. You’re not going back to the Hooterville where you grow up so you decide to stay on there.
Although we associate Los Angeles with Hollywood, in the first half of the twentieth century it was a very conservative town overall, mostly peopled by Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians from the Midwest and the Great Plains who came to grow oranges instead of sugar beets. Using the police to crack down on “vice” was invented in Los Angeles. Also, in the 1940s, Los Angeles was large and mostly rural. Going from Downtown to Long Beach took several hours as you made your way down poorly maintained roads with orange groves on either side.
You need a way to get around. Fortunately the military had used motorcycles for couriers in the field during the war and no longer needing them was practically giving them away. And so you get a motorcycle. In addition to providing you with an affordable means of transportation, you discover that riding a motorcycle is a hell of a lot of fun. You spend your weekends riding motorcycles with your buddies you served with during the war.
In 1953, you all go to see a movie together. That movie is The Wild One starring Marlon Brando. In the movie, although Brando’s character Johnny shows interest in Mary Murphy’s Kathie, at the end he goes riding off with his club brothers. And, Brando in The Wild One is so damn sexy in his black leather jacket, the thick black belt on his jeans, his boots, and his chauffeur’s cap. You and your riding buddies follow suit.
In 1954, seven gay men in Los Angeles decide to formally organize themselves into a motorcycle club. They pick the name the Satyrs.
The Satyrs are still around today, still going strong. They are the oldest gay organization still in existence in the world. Shortly after their founding, another club forms that includes some members of the Satyrs. They call themselves Oedipus, picking another name from Greek mythology. Why Oedipus? Because Oedipus fucked his mother and everybody was always telling them they were motherfuckers. Gay motorcycle clubs proliferated in and around Los Angeles with a collective membership of hundreds of men. They would do “runs,” riding off into the hills or down to the beach.
This was the 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy instigated a campaign to drive homosexuals and communists out of the Department of Defense and the State Department. The LAPD’s Vice Squad raided bars and entrapped gay men cruising in Griffith Park. In the 1950s, being a homosexual meant that you were constantly in peril. One anonymous letter sent to your employer would mean that it was all over for you. You would be escorted out of your office by security with your personal belongings in a box. You could never list that employer as a reference because they would be happy to tell anyone who called that you were a “goddamned queer.” This danger came not only from the straight people in your life but from other homosexuals: an anonymous letter is anonymous after all. The Mattachine Society, also started in Los Angeles a few years before the Satyrs in 1950, was a secret society. Members would be assigned a name that was not their own and would only be known to other members by this name. Routinely, homosexuals caught up in a sting operation by the police, had their name and place of employment listed in the paper the next day under the headline “PERVERTS ARRESTED.”
And yet, in this dangerous and hostile world, the men in the Satyrs, wearing their tall black boots and leather jackets, found in each other something that had been unavailable to men like them until then: brotherhood, friendship, and a sense of belonging.
Over the following decades, some men in the motorcycle clubs of Los Angeles moved to San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. In their new home towns they would form motorcycle clubs. These clubs could soon be found across the country and even in the United Kingdom and Europe.
The idea of a club, a band of brothers, facing hardship and raising hell together, shoulder to shoulder, from the very start has been an important aspect of the gay male Leather tradition. Many leathermen who did not ride motorcycles found kinship otherwise, forming uniform clubs (starting with the Regiment of the Black and Tans in Los Angeles in 1974), or affiliated with a leather bar, or living in smaller cities across the country. In 2010, a group of Latino leathermen in Los Angeles, sensing that they were somewhat on the outside looking in with the mostly white leather community sought fellowship with each other and formed Los Payasos, (“the clowns” in Spanish), bringing the party, having fun, and raising money for charitable organizations serving children. The tradition of leather clubs working together to put on a big annual event has resulted in Leather Weekends in cities everywhere enjoyed by hundreds, and usually the result of the hard work of about a dozen men. It is difficult to imagine what Leather would be without leather clubs.
Now let’s imagine that you are discharged up the coast in San Francisco.
San Francisco was nothing before James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. As news spread, people came from all over the world to seek their fortunes in the Sierras. A few of them got rich and others got got rich selling provisions to the ‘Forty-Niners, such as Levi Strauss who made rugged dungarees for them to wear. They took their money to San Francisco and spent it in that city’s saloons and brothels. In addition to dreams of wealth, those settlers who landed in San Francisco were wiling to leave behind everything they knew Back East because they found the niceties of civilization suffocating. They were oddballs, roughnecks, and free-spirits. And so, a “live and let live” spirit pervaded the city.
And that was what you found when you got off the ship.